“You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something” – Seymour Papert

I find potentially interesting education provocations everywhere. The remarkable generosity of the world’s finest musical artists performing online during this pandemic have kept me safe and sane. I aspire as an educator to possess their level of talent, wisdom, expertise, focus, humor, commitment, generosity, and love. It is these very virtues that has made jazz musicians such a source of knowledge, wonder, and comfort in my life. One other very special aspect of “the hang” with jazz musicians is the lack of generational barriers within their community of practice. Most people aspiring to be great at what they do welcome opportunities to mentor newbies who express passion for similar pursuits. What makes the performing arts so special is that, as in the Brazilian samba schools, everyone – young and old alike – “dances” together.

So, in between concerts regularly scheduled concerts by Peter Martin, Chick Corea, and the Emmet Cohen Trio, I’ve watched great musicians discuss music they love at listening party fundraisers for Jazz House Kids (Friday nights) and Wynton Marsalis’  “Skain’s Domain,” (Monday night) where world-class artists spin yarns and take questions from the audience.

When I think about education, these are three ideals I cling to.

  1. The best thing we can do is to create as many opportunities as possible for young people to be in the company of interesting adults.
  2. Greatness is achieved through a laser-like focus on overcoming bugs that bother you. Once you approach overcoming that obstacle, a new challenge reveals itself. Such focus tends to make experts great teachers since such self-awareness is easy to articulate.
  3. If you wish for others to learn from you, your practice needs to be as transparent as possible.

Each of these principles are embodied in the Skain’s Domain Web livestreams (and archives). I highly recommend you watch the one below, even if you do not understand the subject matter, like jazz, or know who the participants are. There is still plenty to learn about learning and teaching.

This class is not a cocktail party!

Back in the 90s, my colleagues and I created online graduate school programs at Pepperdine University. One of my colleagues told students, “This is not a cocktail party! Your online interactions need to be pithy and deliberate.” To make matters worse, she revealed to students that she used a handheld clicker to count their personal interactions.

Upon hearing this, my first reaction was sadness followed by thought that apparently my colleague has never been invited to a good cocktail party. In fact, I set out to use a cocktail party as the metaphor for all of my teaching. I assume that we have gathered for a common purpose. If someone becomes insufferable you can grab another coconut shrimp and participants are surrounded by a plethora of potentially interesting conversations. Social interaction was key to knowledge construction, collaboration and creativity. Worst of all, “measuring/assessing/counting” human interaction had a predictable prophylactic impact on the social cohesion and productivity of the class.

So, here’s an activity for you to try…

  • Teachers from a school or department, perhaps even multiple schools, should meet online via a platform like Zoom. A diversity of experience, age, gender, friendships, perspectives, race, etc. are all welcome.
  • That Zoom session should be open to the public (or as broad a cross-section of your community as possible) and recorded in order to share the archive. Advertise the session in advance at a time your community may be available to “participate.”
  • The participating teachers should discuss any topics they wish, reminisce about their teaching experiences, plan their next units, chill, catch-up on each other’s lives, or a combination of all-of-the-above. If children are watching the online “faculty room,” be sure that the language and topics discussed are age appropriate.
  • After 30-45 minutes of the “audience” observing your social fishbowl, open the session up to questions from the peanut gallery. Break the fourth wall.

Voila! That’s it! Go ahead and change the world!

Let me know what you learn.


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.

I hope that anyone reading this is healthy and sane during this period of uncertainty. Teachers and kids alike are grieving over the loss of freedom, social interactions, and normalcy. Many families, even those never before considered at-risk, are terrified of the potential for financial ruin or catastrophic health risks. Since I’m all about the love and spreading optimism, I humbly share a silver-lining for teachers and the kids that they serve.

The fact that you are being told to “teach online” in some vague version of “look busy” may mean that teachers are finally being trusted. Districts large and small are abandoning grading as they recognize that education (at home) is inequitable. I guess it’s better late than never to discover the obvious.

Parents and superintendents are vanquishing the needless infliction of nonsense known as homework. Standardized testing is being canceled, an actual miracle. Colleges have recognized that enrolling students next Fall is more important than SAT or ACT scores. Each of these emergency measures has been advocated by sentient educators forever.

So, there is reason to celebrate (briefly), but then you must act! Use this time to remake schooling in a way that’s more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centered. This is your moment!

In the absence of compelling models of what’s possible, the forces of darkness will fill the void. Each of us needs to create models of possibility.

The fact that kids’ days are now unencumbered by school could mean that they finally have adequate time to work on projects that matter rather than being interrupted every 23 minutes. I recently wrote, What’s Your Hurry?, about teaching computer programming, but it’s applicable to other disciplines.

Project-based learning offers a context for learner-centered pedagogy. I was reminded that the new edition of our book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” includes several chapters on effective prompt setting that may be useful in designing projects for kids at home. Invent To Learn also lays out the case for learning-by-doing. Use that information to guide your communication with administrators, parents, and the community.

The following are but a few suggestions for seizing the moment and reinventing education after this crisis is resolved so we may all return to a new, better, normal.

Practice “Less us, more them”

Anytime a teacher feels the impulse to intervene in an educational transaction, it is worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking, “Is there less that I can do and more that the student(s) can do?” The more agency shifted to the student, the more they will learn.

One exercise you can practice teaching online, as well as face-to-face, is talk less. If you typically lecture for 40 minutes, try 20. If you talk for 20 minutes, try 10. If you talk for 10, try 5. In my experience, there is rarely an instance in which a minute or two of instruction is insufficient before asking students to do something. While teaching online, try not to present content, but rather stimulate discussion or organize activities to maximize student participation. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Remember, less is more

My colleague Brian Harvey once said, “The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.” This is wise advice during sudden shift to online teaching and the chaos caused by the interruption of the school year.

Focus on the big ideas. Make connections between topics and employ multiple skills simultaneously. Abandon the compulsion to “deliver” a morbidly obese curriculum. Simplify. Edit. Curate.

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

Learning adventures are a technique I became known for when I began teaching online in the 1990s. This process is described in the 2008 paper, Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments.

Inspire kids to read entire books

Since the bowdlerized and abridged basals are locked in school, encourage kids to luxuriate with real books! Imagine if kids had the freedom to select texts that interest them and to read them from cover-to-cover without a comprehension quiz or vocabulary lesson interrupting every paragraph! Suggest that kids post reviews on Amazon.com for an authentic audience rather than making a mobile or writing a five-paragraph essay. Use Amazon.com or Goodreads to find other books you might enjoy.

Tackle a new piece of software

Been meaning to learn Final Cut X, Lightroom, a new programming language, or any other piece of sophisticated software? Employ groups of kids to tackle the software alone or together and employ their knowledge once school returns. Let them share what they know and lead.

Contribute to something larger than yourself

This is the time for teachers to support kids in creating big creative projects. Write a newspaper, novel, poetry anthology, play, cookbook, or joke book. Make a movie and then make it better. Create a virtual museum. Share your work, engage in peer editing, and share to a potentially infinite audience.

Check out what Berklee College of Music students have already done!

Teach like you know better

Use this time to rev-up or revive sound pedagogical practices like genre study, author study, process writing, interdisciplinary projects and the other educative good stuff too often sacrificed due to a lack of sufficient time. You now have the time to teach well.

Take note of current events

Daily life offers a world of inspiration and learning invitations. Why not engage kids in developmentally appropriate current events or take advantage of opportunities like JSTOR being open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis? Here’s a possible student prompt.

“Go to JSTOR, figure out how it works, find an interesting article, and share what you learned with the class.”

Let Grow

Change the world by challenging students to learn something on their own by embracing the simple, yet profound, Let Grow school project. A simple assignment asks kids to do something on their own with their parent’s permission and share their experiences with their peers.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Every problem in education has been solved and every imaginable idea has been implemented somewhere. Teachers should use this time to read books about education written by experts and learn the lessons of the masters.

Take time to enjoy some culture

There is no excuse to miss out on all of the cultural activities being shared online from free Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre, Broadway shows, operas, living room concerts, piano practice with Chick Corea, and exciting multimedia collaborations. Many of these streams are archived on social media, YouTube, or the Web. Bring some peace, beauty, and serenity into your home.

The following are some links, albeit incomplete and subjective, to free streaming cultural events.

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

In A Personal Road to Reinventing Mathematics Education, I wrote about how I have been fortunate enough to know and spend time with some of the world’s most prominent mathematicians and that while not a single one of them ever made me feel stupid, plenty of math teachers did. Stephen Wolfram is arguably the world’s leading mathematician/scientist/computer scientist. Over the past few years, he has become interested in teachers, kids, and math education. Dr. Wolfram spoke at Constructing Modern Knowledge, runs an annual summer camp for high school mathematicians, and has made many of his company’s remarkable computational tools available for learners.

Acknowledging that many students are home do to the pandemic this week, Wolfram led a free online Ask Me Anything session about an array of math and science topics, ostensibly for kids, as well as a “follow-along” computation workshop. You, your children, or your students have unprecedented access to all sorts of expertise, just a click away! This is like Albert Einstein making house calls!

A bit of exploration will undoubtedly uncover experts in other disciplines sharing their knowledge and talents online as well.

Abandon hysterical internet policies

The immediate need for laptops, Internet access, student email, plus the expedient use of available technologies like YouTube, FaceTime, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom has instantly dispelled the hysterical and paranoid centralized approach to the Internet schools have labored under for the past twenty-five years. The Internet has never been dependent on the policies of your school or your paraprofessional IT staff to succeed. Perhaps we will learn what digital citizenship actually looks like after teachers and children are treated like modern citizens.

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

When I worked with Seymour Papert, he created a document titled, “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab.” This one sheet of paper challenges educators to create productive contexts for learning in the 21st Century. Can you aspire to make these recommendations a reality in your classroom(s)?

Do twenty things to do with a computer

In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. How does your school measure up a half-century later?

Program your own Gameboy

Yes, you read that correctly. Here is everything you need to know to write your own computer games, build an arcade, or program a handheld gaming device!

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

Upper elementary and middle school students could learn to program in Scratch and develop their reading fluency at the same time. Learn how in A Modest Proposal.

Share my sense of optimism

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis, I published, Time for Optimism, in which I shared reasons why progressive education is on the march and how we might teach accordingly. We can do this!

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


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.

School is More than a Place – Laptops in Teacher Education
by Gary S. Stager
Adjunct Professor – Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology (USA)

This September our school, Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California, began requiring all new students in our veteran teachers Masters degree programs to own a laptop along with modem and Internet Service Provider. Practicing teachers entering our Master of Arts in Educational Technology and Master of Arts in Teaching as a Profession would not only own a personal laptop computer, but also participate in the reinvention of education. The new Masters degree programs were initiated after two years of offering an educational computing doctoral program with 60% of all contact time spent online. Teachers in our Masters program spend more than 40% of all “course” time online away from campus. The percentage is hard to quantify. Although we reduced face-to-face (f2f) class time from thirteen to eight sessions spread out across the thirteen week trimester, students spend far more time online engaging with each other and faculty than occurred during the typical graduate level uni course.

The implementation of laptops was based on three objectives:

1) To professionalize computer-use among educators enrolling in our degree program
2) To provide anywhere, anytime computing opportunities for our students and to help them experience the learning benefits of personal computing
3) To end our reliance on computer labs run by the university bureaucracy. Despite the quality of the labs professors are constantly frustrated by the unpredictability of public computers and questionable oversight.

It is clear after just one term that we are on the right track. 100% of our education faculty regularly uses email, the web, newgroups and MOOs. Faculty members have a private web page from which we can automatically establish a new newsgroup.

My 32 students and I posted 2034 newsgroup messages during a three month period. Many of these messages are several pages in length and final projects were submitted as web sites. We have learned the following lessons about learning online.

Scarcity is a major obstacle to use
All of my suspicions about teacher ownership of computing were realized this term. I have always believed that teachers didn’t have enough access to computers to make learning to use them worthwhile. Students attended a Friday night and all-day Saturday “tech camp” where they learned to use their laptops, go online and create simple web pages. The following Monday classes began and students were expected to collaborate online. Technological fluency was acquired at a rapid pace.

We are educators, not telephone companies or software developers
We use off-the-shelf email, web server, and newsgroup software in addition to a MOO environment designed by Xerox PARC. Students use standard browsers, email clients, and Claris Home Page for communication purposes. Pepperdine provides no remote student Internet access. Students are offered a $12/month ISP or are expected to arrange for their own service provider. Face-to-face classes use a mini Ethernet hub and cables to connect student laptops to the Internet. The beauty of the Internet is that it isn’t dependent on any of us. It existed before us and doesn’t require us to reinvent the wheel.

Learning in an online community of practice is more personal, thoughtful and social
Instead of relegating learning to a two hour and forty-five minute class once a week students have access to each other and the professor at all times. One student commented that “class travels with me all week.” Students and faculty can share news items and issues faced in their classrooms in a timely manner. Exciting discussions emerged from such current events and personal experiences.

When one has the opportunity to edit their messages, the resulting thoughts tend to be more thoughtful. Students have exhibited an enhanced willingness to take a stand on controversial issues online and routinely share what might have been considered private thoughts and work with their peers. Assignments are routinely posted to the public newsgroup when private email to the professor would have been acceptable. Students provide a great deal of support, praise and assistance to each other via the net. Marital engagement announcements and email from lawmakers were shared online by students. Students would tell you that they became very close online.

Newsgroups are fantastic!
What if all of your year 10 history classes were able to continue discussing a topic with all of the other students taking that course at night? What if they were able to collaborate on projects with non-classmates and share original source material freely? Simple newsgroup technology allows for public one-to-many discussions complete with attached web pages and multimedia resources. Newsgroup postings are public, asynchronous and archived so learners can interact with them at anytime from anywhere. Assignments, readings and course announcements may be posted in the newsgroup. Email and listservs don’t allow such seamless integration of text, HTML and multimedia resources.

The power of cross-posting
On occasion, professors post a message to several classes at once. A wonderfully unintended consequence is that when a student replies, that response is shared with other classes. This encouraged all sorts of collaborations and discussions between students from other courses, campuses and sections.

Access to experts
I emailed authors of books assigned in my course and asked for them to “talk” with students. The ability to interact with students on their own terms encouraged “master teacher” Susan Ohanian, leading teacher educator Linda Darling-Hammond and Seymour Papert to converse with students. From now on I will try to adopt books by authors willing to interact with my students. One problem is that most academics and authors are not as wired as my students. Therefore email, specially focused newsgroups and “getting started” manuals need to be in our bag of tricks.

Professors drop by to chat
Curiosity and collegiality caused faculty members to “lurk” in each other’s class newsgroups. When a professor felt he/she had something to contribute to a discussion they were free to jump in. This was a wonderful unintended consequence of going online. Imagine the history teacher from across the hall spending their free period chatting with another teacher’s class about Japanese bombing of Darwin. Such collaborations between learners and teachers is possible when the teacher can teach “in their pyjamas.”

The web is my secretary
Course syllabi, articles, assigned readings, downloadable software tools, links to interesting sites and online textbook purchasing is available on my web site at: http://moon.pepperdine.edu/~gstager/home.html

The net and personal computing can play a major role in the improvement of education if we let it. I look forward to discovering that future alongside my students.

The New York Times invited me to debate the following premise:

“School administrators say online courses in K-12 classrooms can give students the skills they’ll need in college and the workplace. Indeed, the presence of online courses in primary and secondary schools is a growing trend across the country.

Critics, however, say the interest in such courses is driven by a desire to spend less on teachers, especially when budget crises are forcing deep cuts in education.

Given that middle school and high school students are easily distracted, can they really learn and benefit from online classes?” (NY Times Online)

So, without knowing who I was debating or their positions, I wrote this response (within their tight word limit). In the grand tradition of TED, 140 Character Conferences and other short-attention-span forums, I get to talk. You get to read, and perhaps leave snarky comments.

It’s too bad. Education is complex and could really benefit from substantive conversation. It would be even better if education issues were discussed in the actual NY Times.

In any event, I’m honored to have been asked and proud of what I wrote.

“I reject the assumption that adolescents are easily distracted. Given the right project, topic and environment, young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity. Inherent in the second question lies a major problem facing education today…” (Gary Stager, from article)