I am always looking for ways to help teachers be more intentional and create deeper learning experiences for their students. Today, through the haze of Bombay Belly, I had an epiphany that may help you in similar learning situations.

Authentic project-based learning is in my humble opinion incompatible with curricular tricks like, Understanding by Design, where an adult determines what a children should know or do and then gives the illusion of freedom while kids strive to match the curriculum author’s expectation.

I view curriculum as the buoy, not the boat and find that a good idea is worth 1,000 benchmarks and standards.

Whether you agree with me or not, please consider my new strategy for encouraging richer classroom learning. I call it, “…and then?”

It goes something like this. Whenever a teacher asks a kid or group of kids to participate in some activity or engage in a project, ask, “..and then?” Try asking yourself, “..and then?” while you teach.

For example, when the kindergarten teacher has every child make a paper turkey or a cardboard clock, ask, “…and then?” This is like an improvisational game that encourages/requires teachers to extend the activity “that much” further.

You ask first graders to invent musical instrument. Rather than being content with the inventions, ask, “…and then?” You might then decide to:

  1. Ask each kid to compose a song to be played on their instrument
  2. Teach their song to a friend to play on their invented instrument
  3. The next day ask the kids to play the song they were taught yesterday from memory
  4. When they can’t remember how, you might ask each “composer” to write down the song so other players can remember it
  5. This leads to the invention of notational forms which can be compared and contrasted for efficacy or efficiency. This invention of notation leads to powerful ideas across multiple disciplines.

I think, “…and then?,” has application at any age and across any subject area.

Try it for yourself and let me know what you think!

Almost daily, a colleague I respect posts a link to some amazing tale of classroom innovation, stupendous new education product or article intended to improve teaching practice. Perhaps it is naive to assume that the content has been vetted. However, once I click on the Twitter or Facebook link, I am met by one of the following:

  1. A gee-whiz tale of a teacher doing something obvious once, accompanied by breathless commentary about their personal courage/discovery/innovation/genius and followed by a steam of comments applauding the teacher’s courage/discovery/innovation/genius. Even when the activity is fine, it is often the sort of thing taught to first-semester student teachers.
  2. An article discovering an idea that millions of educators have known for decades, but this time with diminished expectations
  3. An ad for some test-prep snake oil or handful of magic beans
  4. An “app” designed for kids to perform some trivial task, because “it’s so much fun, they won’t know they’re learning.” Thanks to sites like Kickstarter we can now invest in the development of bad software too!
  5. A terrible idea detrimental to teachers, students or public education
  6. An attempt to redefine a sound progressive education idea in order to justify the status quo

I don’t just click on a random link from a stranger, I follow the directions set by a trusted colleague – often a person in a position of authority. When I ask them, “Did you read that article you posted the link to?” the answer is often, “I just re-read it and you’re right. It’s not good.” Or “I’m not endorsing the content at the end of the link, “I’m just passing it along to my PLN.”

First of all, when you tell me to look at something, that is an endorsement. Second, you are responsible for the quality, veracity and ideological bias of the information you distribute. Third, if you arenot taking responsibility for the information you pass along, your PLN is really just a gossip mill.

If you provide a link accompanied by a message, “Look at the revolutionary work my students/colleagues/I did,” the work should be good and in a reasonable state of completion. If not, warn me before I click. Don’t throw around terms like genius, transformative or revolutionary when you’re linking to a kid burping into Voicethread!! If you do waste my time looking at terrible work, don’t blame me for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Just today, two pieces of dreck were shared with me by people I respect.

1) Before a number of my Facebook friends shared this article, I had already read it in the ASCD daily “Smart” Brief. Several colleagues posted or tweeted links to the article because they yearn for schools to be better – more learner-centered, engaging and meaningful.

One means to those ends is project-based learning.  I’ve been studying, teaching and speaking about project-based learning for 31 years. I’m a fan. I too would like to help every teacher on the planet create the context for kids to engage in personally meaningful projects.

However, sharing the article, Busting myths about project-based learning, will NOT improve education or make classrooms more project-based. In fact, this article so completely perverts project-based learning that it spreads ignorance and will make classroom learning worse, not better.

This hideous article uses PBL, which the author lectures us isn’t just about projects (meaningless word soup), as a compliment to direct instruction, worksheets and tricking students into test-prep they won’t mind as much. That’s right. PBL is best friends with standardized testing and worksheets (perhaps on Planet Dummy). There is no need to abandon the terrible practices that squeeze authentic learning out of the school day. We can just pretend to bring relevance to the classroom by appropriating the once-proud term, project-based learning.

Embedding test-prep into projects as the author suggests demonstrates that the author really has no idea what he is talking about. Forcing distractions into a student’s project work robs them of agency and reduces the activity’s learning potential. The author is also pretty slippery in his use of the term, “scaffolding.” Some of the article doesn’t even make grammatical sense.

Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes.

The  article was written by a gentleman who leads professional development for the Buck Institute, an organization that touts itself as a champion of project-based learning, as long as those projects work backwards from dubious testing requirements. This article does not represent innovation. It is a Potemkin Village preserving the status quo while allowing educators to delude themselves into feeling they are doing the right thing.

ASCD should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such trash. My colleagues, many with advanced degrees and in positions where they teach project-based learning, should know better!

If you are interested in effective project-based learning, I’m happy to share these five articles with you.

2) Another colleague urged all of their STEM and computer science-interested friends to explore a site raising money to develop “Fun and Creative Computer Science Curriculum.” Whenever you see fun and creative in the title of an education product, run for the hills! The site is a fund-raising venture to get kids interested in computer science. This is something I advocate every day. What could be so bad?

Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity. Right now, we have 20 lessons created, but only 3 packaged. Help us finish by summer!

My experience in education suggests that once you package something, it dies. Ok Stager, I know you’re suspicious of the site and the product searching for micro-investors, but watch the video they produced. It has cute kids in it!

So, I watched the video…

Guess what? Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity – and best of all? YOU DON’T EVEN NEED A COMPUTER!!!!!!

Fantastic! Computer science instruction without computers! This is like piano lessons with a piano worksheet. Yes siree ladies and gentleman, there will be no computing in this computer science instruction.

A visitor to the site also has no idea who is writing this groundbreaking fake curriculum or their qualifications to waste kids’ time.

Here we take one of the jewels of human ingenuity, computer science, a field impacting every other discipline and rather than make a serious attempt to bring it to children with the time and attention it deserves, chuckleheads create cup stacking activities and simplistic games.

There are any number of new “apps” on the market promising to teach kids about computer science and programming while we should be teaching children to be computer scientists and programmers.

At the root of this anti-intellectualism is a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or incompetent. Yet, I have taught thousands of teachers to teach programming to children and in the 1980s, perhaps a million teachers taught programming in some form to children. The software is better. The hardware is more abundant, reliable and accessible. And yet, the best we can do is sing songs, stack cups and color in 2013?

What really makes me want to scream is that the folks cooking up all of these “amazing” ideas seem incapable of using the Google or reading a book. There is a great deal of collected wisdom on teaching computer science to children, created by committed experts and rooted in decades worth of experience.

If you want to learn how to teach computer science to children, ask me, attend my institute, take a course. I’ll gladly provide advice, share resources, recommend expert colleagues and even help debug student programs. If you put forth some effort, I’m happy to match it.

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
-Sir Joshua Reynolds

Don’t lecture me about the power of social media, the genius of your PLN, the imperative for media literacy or information curation if you are unwilling to edit what you share. I share plenty of terrible articles via Twitter and Facebook, but I always make clear that I am doing so for purposes or warning or parody. The junk is always clearly labeled.

Please filter the impurities out of your social media stream.You have a responsibility to your audience.

Thank you


* Let the hysterical flaming begin! Comments are now open.

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

Click here to register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2013 today!

CMK 2013

 

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

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

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

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

Constructing Modern Knowledge is about:

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

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

Register today!

Download a printable brochure for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2013

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, there is no such video to share.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are but a few arguments for classroom photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s nice to share
‘nuff said

Imagine a place where a diverse population learns more in a few days than they otherwise would in years. Imagine a space where tinkering is encouraged and personally meaningful project development is supported by an expert faculty. Imagine a learning environment filled with books, art supplies, robotics materials, electronics, computers, cameras, musical instruments and creativity software. Imagine learners having the luxury of time required to realize their objectives and opportunities to work with some of the world’s most creative thinkers. Imagine learners making films, programming computers, building simulations, constructing robots, sewing wearable computers, creating animations and designing video games. Imagine a once-in-a-lifetime field trip to a see the future.

Now, imagine that these learners are professional teachers. This is not a fantasy. It’s called Constructing Modern Knowledge, a summer institute for educators celebrating its fifth anniversary this July 9-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Educators from China, Costa Rica and Australia join Americans from across the USA at next month’s event.

Constructing Modern Knowledge is built upon the simple proposition that you cannot adequately teach in the 21st Century, if you have not learned in this Century with the modern materials and technology that amplify human potential. How is a teacher or school administrator supposed to resource a classroom or teach in a way that takes advantage of the rich opportunities beyond the classroom walls without awareness and personal knowledge of what it feels like to learn with the tools of their age? Constructing Modern Knowledge participants are encouraged to take off their teacher hat and become reacquainted with their learner hat.

Even the most creative educators need a spa day for their mind where their passion, curiosity and ambition can be reignited. Constructing Modern Knowledge not only creates a fantastic laboratory for tinkering, inventing and creating, but it offers opportunities for educators to learn with their heroes. Constructing Modern Knowledge is a chance for educators to reinvent themselves.

Civil rights icon & best-selling author Jonathan Kozol visits with teachers reinventing the phonograph

In addition to an amazing faculty of gifted educators and pioneers, Constructing Modern Knowledge features remarkable guest speakers who spend time learning with and mentoring participants.

This year’s guest speakers include:

  • Casey Neistat – award-winning DIY filmmaker with millions of Web views and star of his own HBO series, The Neistat Brothers.
  • Mark Frauenfelder – Editor-in-Chief of Make Magazine, Founder of BoingBoing.net and author of Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. Frauenfelder is at the forefront of the maker movement sweeping the globe.
  • Dr. Leah Beuchley – MIT Media Lab professor and Lilypad Arudino (wearable computing construction kits) inventor
  • Dr. Lilian Katz – Veteran educational researcher, early childhood specialist and proponent of “the project approach” to learning
  • Super Awesome SylviaTen year-old Web phenom, maker, tinkerer, learner, teacher and role model

Our “field trip” to Boston will begin with a reception at the world-famous MIT Media Lab, where much of the future is being invented.

On top of all that, Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the world’s greatest living scientists, inventors and provocateurs will lead his fifth annual “fireside chat.” This year, Dr. Minsky will also be a participant in Constructing Modern Knowledge!

According to Wikipedia

Isaac Asimov described Minsky as one of only two people he would admit were more intelligent than he was, the other being Carl Sagan.[4] Ray Kurzweil has referred to Minsky as his mentor.”

Participants will have the opportunity to work on projects with or alongside of Marvin Minsky and our other distinguished guests! Previous CMK speakers have included Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, Derrick Pitts, Lella Gandini, James Loewen and Mitchel Resnick.

Constructing Modern Knowledge is by its very nature an intimate professional learning event, but registration is still possible. Parents and citizens can certainly send their favorite teacher to “camp” this summer too. They’ll come back to school with a new bag of tricks and inspired to help students invent their futures.


Check out the learning stories from last year’s institute, teacher resources and videos at This is What Learning Looks Like!

The Creative Educator has published my fifth article in a series on effective project-based learning, A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words. The text of this article is below. PDFs of the entire series may be downloaded and shared.

I hope you and your colleagues enjoy it!

Previous articles in the series:

  1. What Makes a Good Project?
  2. Developing Projects That Endure
  3. The Genius of Print
  4. Less Us, More Them!
  5. A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words.

A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words
© June 2012 – Gary S. Stager

Over the past thirty years I have written curricula and taught curriculum writing. During the course of my career, I have seen curriculum used as a weapon and as a security blanket. Curriculum is often arbitrary, created far away from the students subjected to it.

Seymour Papert used to ask why, if we understand that at best the curriculum covers a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, do we spend so much time quibbling over which billionth of a percent is so important?

A Good Prompt
I know that much is expected of today’s teachers and students. I also know that the richest learning experiences and greatest demonstrations of student mastery have emerged from situations where maximum flexibility is exercised. If deep learning is the goal, then when it comes to curriculum, less is more!

For years, I have watched kids in my classes do remarkable work without being taught to do so. I marveled at how participants in the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute could write a crazy project idea on the wall and then accomplish it within a matter of hours or days. I watched as graduate students told 10th grade English students to use their computers to compose a piece of instrumental music telling the story of Lady Macbeth; and regardless of the student’s range of expertise, they nailed it.

During my doctoral research I formed a pedagogical hypothesis which I believe answers the question of how a learner is able to accomplish more, often in a short period of time, than they could have ever achieved following a traditional curricular scope and sequence. I call this hypothesis A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words!

With the following four variables in place, a learner can exceed expectations.

1. A good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question
2. Appropriate materials
3. Sufficient time
4. Supportive culture, including a range of expertise

The genius of this approach is that it is self-evident. If you lack one of the four elements, it is obvious what needs to be done.

Us or Them?
In my article “Less Us, More Them,” I argue that anytime an adult feels it necessary to intervene in an educational transaction, they should take a deep breath and ask, “Is there some way I can do less and grant more authority, responsibility, or agency to the learner?”

The same is true for prompt setting. The best prompts emerge from a learner’s curiosity, experience, discovery, wonder, challenge, or dilemma. However, all too often teachers design prompts for student inquiry or projects.

If you absolutely must design a prompt for students, here are three tips you should follow.

1. Brevity. The best prompts fit on a Post-It! Note. They are clear, concise, and self-evident.

2. Ambiguity. The learner should be free to satisfy the prompt in their own voice, perhaps even employing strategies you never imagined.

3. Immunity to assessment. The best projects push up against the persistence of reality. What is a B+ poem or musical composition? How does an engineering project earn an 87? Most mindful work succeeds or fails. Students will want to do the best job possible when they care about their work and know that you put them ahead of a grade. If students are collaborating and regularly engaged in peer review or editing, then the judgment of an adult is really unnecessary. Worst of all, it is coercive and often punitive.

Good prompts do not burden a learner, but set them free. Add thematic units, interdisciplinary projects, and a classroom well equipped with whimsy, objects-to-think-with, and comfort, and you set the stage for authentic student achievement.

Attend Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event!

Many of my readers and colleagues know that I have a knack for questioning deeply held assumptions and myths involving education. I also hold positions that others might find extreme. For example, I think curriculum, in all of its forms – especially heavy-handed nonsense like “Common Core – is a terrible idea. I don’t mean bad curriculum is a bad idea; I mean that curriculum itself is a bad idea. (click here for an explanation)

That said,I do not promote anarchy or even believe that “curriculum-free” pedagogy, such as unschooling, result in irresponsible chaos.

For the past several months, I have been working a few days a week as a S.T.E.M. consultant at a school in Los Angeles. The goal is to improve the quality of teaching in the school and I am doing a lot of modeling in classrooms. A couple of weeks ago, I began using robotics in the 5th grade class. I have lots of objectives for using my favorite robotics materials, Pico Crickets, but here are three big ones. I could list a bazillion sub-skills and affective objectives, but I will spare those details.

  1. Specific science, engineering, mathematics and programming concepts come to life in a tactile fashion.
  2. Students develop important habits of mind and inquiry skills by tinkering, invention and complex open-ended project work.
  3. You can learn an awful lot about individual student learning styles, talents and prior knowledge by working alongside them during problem-solving activities. You also learn a lot about their prior educational experiences.


I first introduced the Pico Cricket materials to the kids by quickly showing the special parts in each building kit, asking them to “bunch up” in groups and recreate one of the projects suggested in the pictorial Pico Cricket placemats that come with each building set. After no more than two or three minutes of instruction, I circulate around the room, make suggestions, ask questions, troubleshoot hardware and remind kids to “ask three before me.” I seize the teachable moment and introduce a nugget of information when and where it is needed. Occasionally, I’ll ask one student to pass that along to others or just announce that “Samantha knows how to do X.”

After a session or two of recreating, personalizing and embellishing the project starters, I asked the class to invent new toys. One group built a bowling machine that sent a ball down an alley to knock down pins. Another built a barking walking machine inspired by a book I made available. Two teams approached gumball machine design in different ways, with one even making the machine coin-operated.

Walking machine (click to enlarge)

Another student was teeming with ideas and enthusiasm, but less accomplished at consensus building with peers. So, I gave him his  own building set to work with in an effort to amplify his his strengths while suggesting that he will need to develop greater ability to collaborate. He was the first to program his Pico Crickets and became an asset to other kids who needed to learn to use the Scratch-like programming software.

Noise-sensitive car program

A motorized car was quickly enhanced by the ability to make it GO and STOP by making a loud noise. One or two sessions of adjusting the sensor tolerance to account for ambient noise and the toy car would stop and start on command! Friction, gearing and stable construction techniques were encountered along the way. Some of the programming needed my help because the software runs much quicker than a loud sound.

After joyfully sharing his invention with anyone he could find, the student had an original new idea!

He changed his computer program so that when a loud noise, such as a clap, was detected, the car would travel forward for exactly one second.

Hear a sound and go forward for 1 second

I was busy working with other groups of students and was unaware of the new direction for his project until I saw him lay a meter stick on the ground and grab a clipboard, pen and paper. He decided to measure how far the vehicle traveled (on that surface) in one second.

Testing the speed of the noise-controlled car (click to expand)

The kid knew that an average of multiple trials were necessary to ensure accuracy, so he got his TI-15 calculator. I suggested a strip of tape as a starting line and the experiment was underway. After multiple trials, the kid went to average the data and realized that he made a calculation error – without any intervention from a teacher or peer. He tried again and declared, “On average, the car travels 31 inches per second.”

Obviously, the next thing a kid wants to know is how fast the car travels in miles per hour (or kilometers per hour in nations using that silly metric system). Traditionally, this is the point at which all of the fun descends into math class hell.

How many seconds in a minute? How many inches in a foot? Yard? Mile? Seconds in a mile…” Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

That’s when I made my greatest contribution to the learning adventure. I whipped out my laptop, pointed my browser at www.wolframalpha.com and typed 31 inches per second into the calculation field.

A fraction of a second later, the handy web site told us that the car travels an average of 1.76 miles per hour. Not only that, but it provided context by telling us that the average human walks 2.5 miles per hour. Imagine that? Mathematical context!

This is a game changer! (click to expand)

When simple things, even repetitive calculations, are easy to do, complex things become possible. The student might decide to build a faster or slower car. He might challenge classmates to a robot race or see who can build a vehicle that will climb the steepest incline. These are all invitations to learn about force, speed, mechanical advantage, gear ratios and more. Or the kid may be content with what he has accomplished and embark upon a new learning adventure.

Lessons

  1. The project idea belonged to the learner. Occasionally I would ask a question or make a suggestion that would lead to greater experimentation.
  2. There was no scripted plan or backward design intended to get a kid from point-A to point-B. He achieved his objectives and learned more deeply along the way.
  3. That new knowledge and expertise is an asset to peers who want to try similar experiments or just integrate this kid’s ideas into their future projects.
  4. There was no formal show and tell. Kids collaborate and learn from each other naturally when the conditions value freedom, sharing, giddiness, whimsy and movement.
  5. There is no need to require every student or team of students to reproduce this project now or next year.
  6. There is almost never a time when more than 2-3 minutes of instruction is necessary before the students do something. If you are engaged in too much full-frontal teaching or whole-class instruction, try lecturing for half as long and shave a bit of time off each day until you get to less us and more them!
  7. Learning is natural.
  8. Learning is personal.
  9. Learning is a consequence of experience.
  10. Learning takes time, but not as long as it takes to “teach” the same lesson.
  11. Less is more.
  12. Kids should be allowed to be themselves and learn in a style that best suits them and a specific task. It is not up to the teacher to determine that comfortable style. Learning styles tend to be a lot more fluid and less confining than even well-meaning teachers believe.
  13. If you make simple things easy to do, you make complex things possible.
  14. Computers amplify human potential.
  15. Computing is the game-changer, not information access or ICT.
  16. A good prompt is worth 1,000 words!
  17. Curriculum was unnecessary.
  18. Teacher expertise and fluency with the materials, based on extensive personal use and experience are critical!

Want more information?

One reason why Constructing Modern Knowledge is gaining a reputation for being the premiere learning event for educators is the opportunity to work with world-class experts and an amazing faculty. Award-winning filmmaker and digital story-telling genius, Casey Neistat is one of the spectacular guest speakers participating in  CMK 2012.

Casey creates several super creative short films per week using consumer-level cameras and iMovie (samples). His films, entertain, inform, inspire and mobilize.

Today, Casey published a film he made documenting this week’s police raid on Occupy Wall Street. The film is arresting (pun intended), disturbing and deeply moving. Despite its simplicity, the film’s climax will take your breath away. In fact, Casey’s film may document this moment in history the way that The Execution Of Nguyễn Văn Lém mobilized Americans against the War in Vietnam or the photos from the Edmund Pettus Bridge led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Don’t you deserve four days of creative and intellectual stimulation this summer?

Super early-bird registration for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012 ends December 1st. Register today and save $75 per person.


The following videos are a good representation of my work as a conference keynote speaker and educational consultant. The production values vary, but my emphasis on creating more productive contexts for learning remains in focus.

  • For information on bringing Dr. Stager to your conference, school or district, click here.
  • For biographical information about Dr. Stager, click here.
  • For a list of new keynote topics and workshops by Dr. Stager, click here
  • For a list of popular and “retired” keynote topics by Dr. Stager, click here.
  • For family workshops, click here.
  • To learn more about the range of educational services offered by Dr. Stager, click here.

View Gary Stager’s three different TEDx Talks from around the world

Gary Stager: My Hope for School from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

2016 short documentary featuring Dr. Stager



Learning to Play in Education: Joining the Maker Movement
A public lecture by Gary Stager at The Steward School, November 2015

Dr. Gary Stager Visits the Steward School, 2015

A Broader Perspective on Maker Education – Interview with Gary Stager in Amsterdam, 2015

 Choosing Hope Over Fear from the 2014 Chicago Education Festival


This is What Learning Looks Like – Strategies for Hands-on Learning, a conversation with Steve Hargadon, Bay Area Maker Faire, 2012.


Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

 

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Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

TEDx Talk, “Seymour Papert, Inventor of Everything*


Ten Things to Do with a Laptop – Learning and Powerful Ideas
Keynote Address – ITEC Conference – Des Moines, Iowa – October 2011


Plenary Talk at Construtionism 2014 Conference
Vienna, Austria. August, 2014

 


Children, Computing and Creativity
Address to KERIS – Seoul, South Korea – October 2011

 


Gary Stager’s 2011 TEDxNYED Talk
NY, NY – March 2011

 


Gary Stager Discusses 1:1 Computing with leading Costa Rican educators
University of Costa Rica – San José, Costa Rica – June 2011

 

Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction? (approx 45:00 in)
FabLearn 2014 Paper Presentation
October 2014. Stanford University

Keynote Address: Making School Reform
FabLearn 2013 Conference.
October 2013. Stanford University.

Making, Love, and Learning
February 2014. Marin County Office of Education.


Gary Stager’s Plenary Address at the Constructionism 2010 Conference
Paris, France – August 2010

 


Gary Stager Excerpts from NECC ’09 Keynote Debate
June 2009 – Washington D.C.

For more information, go to: http://stager.tv/blog/?p=493

 


Dr. Stager interviewed by ICT Qatar
Doha, Qatar – Spring 2010

 


Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
NECC 2009 Spotlight Session – Washington, D.C. – June 2009
More information may be found at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=531

 

© 2009-2016 Gary S. Stager – All Rights Reserved Except TEDxNYED & Imagine IT2 clip owned by producers