I am often asked about the adoption of Chromebooks and have spent months agonizing how to respond. This article offers food for thought to teachers, administrators, school board members, and policy makers who might find themself swept up in Chromebook mania.

What should a student computer do?

In addition to being portable, reliable, lightweight, affordable, and with a good battery life, a student computer should capable of doing everything our unimaginative adult reptilian brains think a kid should be able to do with a computer and powerful enough to do a great many things we cannot imagine.

The Chromebook might be sufficient if you believe that the primary purpose of school to be taking notes, looking stuff up, completing forms, and communication. I find this to be an impoverished view of both learning and computing. Children need and deserve more. If you find such uses compelling, kids already own cellphones capable of performing such tasks.

Powerful learning is a bargain at any price

Thirty years ago, my friend and mentor Dr. Cynthia Solomon taught me that sound education decisions are never based on price. Providing children with underpowered technology insults kids, treats them like 2nd class citizens, and signals that schools should get scraps. The more schools settle for less, the less the public will provide.

One of the most peculiar terms to enter the education lexicon is “device.” What was the last time you walked into an electronics or computer store and said to a salesperson, “I would like to buy a device please?” This never happens. You buy yourself a computer.

A device is an object you buy on the cheap for other people’s children to create an illusion of modernity. A Chromebook might be swell for a traveling salesman or UPS driver. It is, in my humble opinion, insufficient for school students in 2017.

Providing students with a Chromebook rather than a proper laptop computer is akin to replacing your school orchestra instruments with kazoos. We live in one of the richest nations in all of history. We can afford a cello and multimedia-capable computer for every child.

My best friend’s son attends a middle school where every student was issued a Chromebook. The kids use them primarily to charge their iPhones.

If someday, Chromebooks are sufficiently robust, reliable, and flexible at a good price, I will embrace them with great enthusiasm. That day has yet to arrive.

Chromebooks represent an impoverished view of computing

Read Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer,” (Go ahead. Google it on a Chromebook if you wish) and see how many of things they demonstrated that kids were doing with computers more than 45 years ago are possible on your “device.”

Australian schools in 1989-90 embraced personal laptop computing as a vehicle for programming across the curriculum and created a renaissance of learning with computers that too many educators remain ignorant of or have chosen to forget. Look at the capabilities of the XO computer, aka the $100 laptop, created by the One Laptop Per Child foundation. It was more powerful than today’s Chromebook. We do not to use classroom technology that dooms learners to secretarial roles. They need computers to invent, create, compose, control microcontrollers, program robots, run external machines, build simulations, and write their own software.

Where is S.T.E.M? Or the Arts in the examples of classroom Chromebook use? To those who say that you can compose music, make movies, or edit large audio files on a Chromebook, I suggest, “You first!” The ability to connect things like microcontrollers, robotics, 3D printers, laser cutters may indeed become possible on a Chromebook in the near future, but we already have all sorts of personal computers capable of doing all of those things well today. Why gamble?

When geniuses like Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and Nicholas Negroponte spoke of “the children’s machine,” they meant a better computer than what their father used at the office. Today, “student devices” take on an air of condescension and paternalism that disempower young people.

Schools continuously invent that which already exists; each time with diminished expectations.

They love them!

The only time you hear teachers or administrators claim that kids love something is when those very same adults are desperate to justify a bad decision. Telling me that teachers are finally “using technology” since you procured Chromebooks is just an example of setting low expectations for the professionals you entrust with educating children. Making it easy to do school in a slightly more efficient manner should not be the goal. Making the impossible possible should be. Celebrating the fact that a teacher can use a Chromebook is an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

How low can you go?

I truly respect and appreciate that public schools are underfunded, but underpowered Chromebooks are not the answer. How cheap is cheap enough for a student “device?”

I recently purchased a 15-inch HP laptop with a touchscreen, extended keyboard, 12 GB of RAM, a 2 TB hard drive, and Windows 10 at Costco for $350. I routinely find real PC laptops capable of meeting the standards I outlined above in the $250 – $350 price range in retail stores. Imagine what the price would be if schools wished to buy millions of them!

If $250 – $350 is too expensive (it’s cheaper than playing soccer for one season), how about $35 for a Raspberry Pi, the powerful computer students can run real software on, including Mathematica, which comes free, on the Pi. A Raspberry Pi 3 computer has greater flexibility, power, and available software than a Chromebook and it costs less than my typical Dominos Pizza order.

If you’re feeling extra flush with cash, add a Raspberry Pi Zero computer to your order for the price of that delicious chocolate chip brownie concoction Dominos offers upon checkout.

The Cloud is not free and it still sucks!

One of the great misconceptions driving the adoption of “devices,” such as the Chromebook, is the promise of cloud computing. Doesn’t that just sound heavenly? The cloud….

How is the Internet access in your school? Painful? Slow? Unreliable? Have hundreds of children do all of their computing in the cloud and you may find the school network completely unusable. The future may indeed be “in the cloud,” but today works really well on personal hard drives.

The cost of upgrading your network infrastructure and then employing a high school dropout named Lenny and all of his mates to maintain the network (ie… lock, block, and tell teachers what they can and cannot do online) is much more expensive than trusting kids to save their files on their own laptop.

The Vision thing

Perhaps I missed something, but I am unaware of the educational vision supporting widespread Chromebook adoption. Google has not even faked an educational philosophy like “Think Different.”

Screwing Microsoft might be fun, even laudable, but it is not a compelling educational vision.

The Google problem

Did you hear that Google has a free salad bar and dry cleaning? How cool is that? I wish our staff room had a barista! The successful penetration of Chromebooks into schools is due in no small part to our culture’s lust for unlimited employer provided vegan smoothies. However, it would be irresponsible for educators to surrender pedagogical practice and the potential of our students to the whims of 23 year-old smartasses at any technology company. Silicon Valley could make its greatest positive impact on education by learning the lessons of history, consulting education experts, and most importantly, paying their fair share of taxes.

There are also legitimate privacy concerns about trusting a benevolent corporation with our intellectual property, correspondence, and student data. Google clearly has a lot to gain from hooking kids and their teachers on “The Google” while turning their customers into product.

The pyramid scheme known as the Google Certified Educator program turns innocent well-meaning teachers into street corner hustlers armed with a participation trophy for heroically mastering “the Google.”

Again, I do not understand why any of this reliance on Google is necessary. The average school could spend well under $100/month on its own email and web servers either on-site or co-located. Best of all, no one is reading your email and you are ultimately responsible for your own files. Let a 5th grader manage the entire operation!

The miracle of Google’s YouTube is that a company makes billions of dollars per year by delivering ad-supported stolen content to users. Any teacher who does not believe that they too are in the intellectual property business should be prepared to be replaced by a YouTube video.

Google envy makes bad education policy.

Unicorn Computing

School decision makers responsible for purchasing Chromebooks have been heard to say the following in justification of their actions.

“I had to get Chromebooks!”

The school up the street got them.

“The latest batch is so much better than the other ones we bought.”         

Why are you investing in unreliable technology and then congratulating yourself for doing it again?

“I know that the Chromebooks don’t do everything we need or want them to do, but they should soon.”

Then why did you buy Chromebooks now?

I call the actions justified by such statements unicorn computing. Peer pressure, hoping, and praying are insufficient justification for saddling teachers and children with underpowered powered unreliable devices – especially when cost-effective options exist.

In Closing…

It doesn’t matter to me if a new kind of computer captures the heart and wallets of consumers. All that matters is that scarce educational resources are used to provide students with maximum potential. If Chromebooks were the first computer ever invented and other options did not exist, I might embrace the Chromebook as a classroom option. If Chromebooks were sufficiently powerful, durable, and reliable, I’d endorse their use. When better computers are available at approximately the same price, disempowering kids and confusing teachers seems an imprudent option.

My life’s work has been dedicated to expanding rich learning opportunities for all students by helping educators embrace the tools of modernity. Much of this work has involved personal computing. From 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first two laptop schools and then countless others inspired by this work. I worked with the father of educational computing, Dr. Seymour Papert, for twenty years and was a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Group. Professionally, I have taught children to program computers across the curriculum since 1982. I learned to program in the mid-1970s, an experience that liberated my creativity and opened a window into a world of powerful ideas ever since.

I view computers as personal intellectual laboratories, ateliers, and vehicles for self-expression. The act of computing gives children agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. When every child owns a personal portable computer, they are able to construct knowledge “anytime anywhere,” learn-by-doing, and share their knowledge with a global audience. Computing bestows agency upon learners and allows them to embrace complexity while exploring domains of knowledge and demonstrating ways of knowing unavailable to adults just a few years ago.

There is no greater advocate for computers and computing in education than me. However, the purchasing decisions made by adults, for students, can either amplify human potential or impede learning.

Smaller cheaper computers are an attractive proposition, especially for cash-strapped schools, but I am alarmed by the widespread and too often thoughtless adoption of Google Chromebooks in education. Simply stated, the Chromebook turns back the clock on what we have learned children can do with computers in search of an immature technology.

When it comes to technology, teachers are too often treated as imbeciles or felons!

In 1990, I was hired to teach public school 4th grade. By that time, I had already been engaging children in collaborative online projects for several years and sbsing a telephone for most of my twenty-seven years on earth. Two days into the school year I rebelled against the absurdity of not having a working telephone in my classroom, went to Radio Shack, purchased a $3 phone splitter, found a barely used telephone sitting in an abandoned office, connected the splitter, and began pulling a spool of phone cable down the school corridor. A custodian noticed my efforts and asked if I would like him to drill a few holes to make the job tidier. A few minutes later, I had a computer connected to the Internet via modem so that my students could work on National Geographic Kids Network science projects. (I could send and receive email too.)

Then as now, I could not understand why other teachers would suffer the indignities associated with not being trusted to use a telephone, 114 years after Bell yelled, “Watson! Come here! I need you!” Yet, the powerlessness continued. For at least another decade, teachers were forced to call their gynecologist from a payphone outside the cafetorium at lunch time.

Schools did not change policies, teachers bought their own damned cellphones and now could join the billions of other people around the world with phone access.

Kid confused by payphone (from http://abc7news.com/technology/video-little-boy-has-no-idea-what-a-pay-phone-is/723174/)

Kid confused by payphone (from http://abc7news.com/technology/video-little-boy-has-no-idea-what-a-pay-phone-is/723174/)

In 2016, educators are sent to workshops I lead with school-supplied laptops incapable of installing an “app,” playing a YouTube video, surfing to a .edu domain, or sending email with an attachment. Some have their USB ports disabled. This is not only a source of embarrassment for seemingly “professional” educators, but wastes precious learning time when those teachers are on the phone to the district IT fascist begging for access to their own “personal computer.” I need to abandon teaching to console grown educators frustrated that they cannot participate in sound educational experiences.

Irrational schools and school district policies quickly turn $1,200 teacher laptops into $100 pieces of sculpture.

Each spring, I receive email messages from educators attending Constructing Modern Knowledge. These messages say, “our school IT paraprofessional would like a list of all the software I will need this summer so he (always a HE) can install it for me.” Aside from this remarkable act of disempowerment and dependency, it misses the entire idea that computers are extensible. You never know which features and functionality that may emerge. I cannot and will not provide a list of software to be installed because that decision is based on the needs of the specific project that institute participants choose to work on.

Ten years ago, I was hired by a university to be a Visiting Professor. As part of my contract negotiations, I was promised a new laptop. When the university reneged, I spent a few grand on my own computer. Despite being a bit poorer, I had a key to the building, an office, and place to park my car. I was trusted to write curricula, teach, and award grades. One day, my laptop would no longer print to the university printers. When I interrupted the slumber of the tech “support” staff to troubleshoot, they informed me that faculty was no longer allowed to print from their personal (that word again) computers from their offices, even if the university didn’t provide computers. So, I bought a printer for $50 and put it in my office next to where my computer would sit.

In one act of lunacy, the university banned color printing. When I noticed that my senior colleague responsible for teacher credentialing was hand-coloring documents for the state licensing board with colored pencils, I took the damned printer off my desk and gave it to her.

Just as educators resolved one power imbalance by purchasing their own cellphones, it is time for action. My colleague Audrey Watters has written extensively about why everyone – student, teacher, citizen – needs a domain of one’s own. Pennies a day gets you a domain, server space, and private email account(s).

You know what else you should own? Your own damned laptop! Here’s what you can buy for $350 and have it arrive tomorrow. (Toshiba makes great PCs, but you can save even more money if you go with another manufacturer.)

Toshiba Radius 2016 Newest Edition 11.6″ HD LED-backlit TruBrite 2-in-1 Touchscreen Convertible Laptop | Intel Quad Core | 4GB RAM | 500GB HD | HDMI | Webcam | Bluetooth | WIFI | Windows 10

NOW do you understand why Secretary Clinton may have used her own server? Is it the least bit possible that the Federal Government can’t keep up with technological progress or imposes nonsensical rules for its use?

PS: Concerned that your school or district owns your intellectual property? Use you own damned server. For more than twenty years, every single syllabus, handout, article, paper… I wrote was stored on my own personal server. It would be really hard for your school superintendent or department chair to claim they own something that never lived on their network.

The Case for Computing
By Gary S. Stager

A chapter from the book, Snapshots! Educational Insights from the Thornburg Center (2004)

The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. At its best, the PC offers learners a rich intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Although computing has transformed nearly every aspect of society, schools remain relatively untouched.

This chapter is not about predicting the future. It is about the learning opportunities that exist today and may be overlooked. Computers and creativity are in dangerously short supply. The dearth of compelling models of using computers in deeper ways has created a vacuum now filled by a Dickensian approach to schooling.

When I read the growing mountain of educational technology standards I can’t help but wonder if these objectives could be satisfied without the use of a computer. The unimaginative use of school computers is symptomatic of larger crises in schooling, including what Seymour Papert calls, “idea aversion.” Over the past few decades I have enjoyed working at key moments in the intersection of learning and computers. My daily work is guided by an optimism rooted in experiences learning with computers and observing children doing the same. As much as this is the story of great promise and great disappointment, the children we serve sustain our enthusiasm to work harder to realize the learning potential of the digital age.

Ancient History – My Early Years of Computing

In 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. More than a quarter century ago, the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey thought it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. Computer programming was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas given equal status as industrial arts, music appreciation, art and oral communications.

The scarcity of classroom computers made programming a highly social activity since we were often leaning over each other’s shoulders in order to get in on the action.

Mr. Jones, the computer programming teacher, was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. However, I was attracted by the realization that this guy could make computers do things!

Mr. Jones knew how elaborate computer games worked and would show us the code afterschool if we were interested. Once I understood how to read a computer program, I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful.

The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. The computer amplified my thinking. I could start with the germ of an idea and through incremental success and debugging challenges build something more sophisticated than I could have ever imagined.

The self-awareness that I was a competent thinker helped me survive the indignities of high school mathematics classes. Mr. Jones helped me learn to think like a computer. The ability to visualize divergent paths, anticipate bugs, and rapidly test mental scenarios is the direct result of computer programming. This gift serves me in everyday life when I need hack my way through a voicemail system to reach a knowledgeable human, or get my car out a locked parking structure.

Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too – maybe just slightly ahead of us. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

A strong community of practice emerged in the high school computer room. We learned from each other, challenged one another and played with each other’s programs. We altered timeshare games, added ways to cheat and programmed cheap tricks designed to shock classmates. I even ran after school classes in BASIC for kids interested in learning to program.

Computers were to be used to make things at my high school, not as a subject of study. There was never a mention of computer literacy and owning a computer was unthinkable. The school computers were a place to lose our selves in powerful ideas.

We never saw a manual for a piece of software although we treasured every issue of Creative Computing – working hard to meticulously enter hundreds of lines of computer code only to have every single program be buggy. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. We took Fortran manuals out of the public library for no other reason than to hold a connection to a larger world of computing – a world we were inventing for ourselves.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, were involved in similar little ventures at the time. Many of the computing visionaries who changed the world had similar early experiences with computers. I remember the explosion of thinking and creativity I experienced programming computers and try to recreate the spirit of that computer-rich learning culture in every school I visit. Kids deserve no less.

In the mid-80s I was welcomed into the global “Logo community” and asked to present papers at places like MIT. This was pretty heady stuff for a failed trumpet player and mediocre student. Logo programming offered a vehicle for sharing my talents, expressing my creativity and engaging in powerful ideas with some of the leading thinkers in education. Seymour Papert’s scholarship gave voice to my intuitions visa-a-vis the tension between schooling and learning.

To this day, my work with adults and kids is centered around using computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. To experience the full power of computing, the tools need to be flexible extensible and transparent. The user needs to be fluent in the grammar of the system whether it is text based, symbolic or gestural.

Laptops

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an Australian PK-12 school already recognized for its world-class music education, committed to every student having a personal laptop computer. By the time I began working with MLC a year later, 5th and 7th graders were required to own a laptop. The “P” in PC was taken very seriously. Personal computing would not only solve the obvious problems of student access, low levels of faculty fluency and the costs associated with the construction of computer labs – the PC would embody the wisdom of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget. Logo, because of its open-endedness and cross-curricular potential, was the software platform chosen for student learning. The potential of Logo as a learning environment that would grow with students across disciplines and grade levels could only be realized with access to ubiquitous hardware. This justified the investment in laptops.

MLC principal, David Loader, understood that the personal was at the core of any efforts to make his school more learner-centered. He was not shy in his desire to radically reinvent his school. Bold new thinking, epistemological breakthroughs, sensitivity to a plurality of learning styles, increased collaboration (among teachers and children) and student self-reliance were expected outcomes of the high-tech investment. Teachers learning to not only use, but program, computers would acquaint themselves with the type of “hard fun” envisioned for student learning.

If the computer were to play a catalytic role in this educational shift, it was obvious that the computers needed to be personal. Truly creative and intellectual work requires freedom and a respect for privacy. Quality work is contingent on sufficient time to think, to experiment, to play. The laptop can only become an extension of the child when it is available at all times. Therefore, there was never any debate about laptops going home with students. Time and time again, the most interesting work was accomplished during the student’s personal time.

Laptops were a way to enable student programming “around the clock” and make constructionism concrete.

MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration.

When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality and the rhetoric proclaiming the school’s commitment to constructionism, the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive residential professional development sessions. After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” would no longer cut it.

A renaissance of learning and teaching catapulted MLC and the subsequent Australian “laptop schools” to the attention of school reformers around the world.

We were ecstatic when “laptop” students began to adorn their computers with their names written in glitter paint. This signaled appropriation. The computers mattered. Success.

The early success of MLC and the many other “laptop schools” to follow were a realization of the dream Seymour Papert and Alan Kay held for decades. In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert, a protégé of Jean Piaget, a mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer was combining his interests by designing computing environments in which children could learn. Kay was so impressed by how children in Papert’s Logo Lab were learning meaningful mathematics that he sketched the Dynabook, a dream of portable computers yet to be fully realized, on the flight home to Xerox PARC, a leading high-tech thinktank.

Kay set out to design a portable personal computer for children on which complex ideas could come alive through the construction of simulations. Dr. Kay recently remembered this time by saying,  “More and more, I was thinking of the computer not just as hardware and software but as a medium through which you could communicate important things. Before I got involved with computers I had made a living teaching guitar. I was thinking about the aesthetic relationship people have with their musical instruments and the phrase popped into my mind: an instrument whose music is ideas.”

Kay’s poetic vision resonated with my memories of Mr. Jones, summer camp and my own experiences programming in Logo.

“One of the problems with the way computers are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, ways of thinking. You don’t need a computer for this, but just as with a musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the computer is a great amplifier for learning.”

At-risk and high tech

For three years, beginning in 1999, I worked with Seymour Papert to develop a high-tech alternative learning environment, the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (CCL), inside the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated teens. This multiage environment provided each student with a personal computer and access to a variety of constructive material. The experience of trying to reacquaint or acquaint these previously unsuccessful students with the learning process teaches us many lessons about just how at-risk our entire educational system has become.

The intent of the project was to create a rich constructionist learning environment in which severely at-risk students could be engaged in long-term projects based on personal interest, expertise and experience. Students used computational technologies, programmable LEGO and more traditional materials to construct knowledge through the act of creating a personally meaningful project. The hypothesis was that the constructionist philosophy offers students better opportunities to learn and engage in personally meaningful intellectual development. The computer was the magic carpet that would allow these children to escape their history of school failure.

Students in this alternative learning environment routinely suffered from what Seymour Papert called,“the curious epidemic of learning disabilities.” Kids with low or non-existent literacy skills were able to invent and program robots capable of making decisions and interacting with their environment. Robo Sumo wrestlers, interactive gingerbread houses, card dealing robots, luggage sorting systems and temperature-sensitive vending machines capable of charging a customer more money on hot humid days were but a few of the ingenious inventions constructed with programmable LEGO materials. Students also designed their own videogames, made movies and explored the universe via computer-controlled microscopes and telescopes. They wrote sequels to Othello and published articles in programming journals. These kids proved that computing offered productive learning opportunities for all kinds of minds.

One child, said to be completely illiterate, wrote a page of program code the night before class because an idea was burning inside of him. Another “illiterate” youngster, incarcerated for more than half of his life, was capable of building dozens of mechanisms in the blink of an eye and installing complex software. His ability to program complicated robots presented clues about his true abilities. A week before he left the facility, this child, so accustomed to school failure, sat down and typed a 12,000-word autobiography.

Tony’s adventure is also a tale worth telling. He had not been in school since the seventh grade and indicated that none of his peer group attended school past the age of twelve or thirteen. In the CLL he fell in love with robotics and photography at the age of seventeen.

During the spring of 2001, the MYC campus was populated with groundhog holes. To most kids these familiar signs of spring went unnoticed, but not for the “new” Tony.

Tony and his new assistant, “Craig,” spent the next few weeks building a series of what came to be known as “Gopher-cams.” This work captured the imagination of the entire Maine Youth Center. Tony and Craig learned a great deal about how simple unanticipated obstacles like a twig could derail days of planning and require new programming or engineering. These students engaged in a process of exploration not unlike the men who sailed the high seas or landed on the moon. While they never really found out what was down the hole, they learned many much more important lessons.

Robotics gives life to engineering, mathematics and computer science in a tactile form. It is a concrete manifestation of problem solving that rewards debugging, ingenuity and persistence. The LEGO robotic materials promote improvisational thinking, allowing even young children to build a machine, test a hypothesis, tinker, debug, and exceed their own expectations.  As often experienced in programming, every incremental success leads to a larger question or the construction of a bigger theory.  This dialogue with the machine amplifies and mediates a conversation with self.

Digital technology is a critical variable in the transformation of reluctant learners. Self-esteem, or even academic grades, might have been enhanced through traditional activities. However, the availability of computationally-rich construction materials afforded the learners the opportunity to experience the empowerment associated with the feeling of wonderful ideas. For the first time in their lives, these children experienced what it felt like to be engaged in intellectual work. This feeling required a personal sustained relationship with the computer and computationally-rich objects to think with such as LEGO and MicroWorlds. All students deserve the chance to make important contributions to the world of ideas, and must be given the means to do so.

State of the art?

Much needs to be done to ensure that all students enjoy the quality of experience offered by the best laptop schools, online environments and the CLL.

Somewhere along the line, the dreams of Kay, Papert and Loader were diluted by the inertia of school. Detours along the road to the Dynabook were paved by the emergence of the Internet and corporate interest in the laptop miracle.

Until the explosion of interest in the Internet and Web, individual laptops offered a relatively low-cost decentralized way to increase access to computers and rich learning opportunities. The Net, however, required these machines to be tethered to centralized servers and an educational bureaucracy pleased with its newfound control. Computing costs soared, data and children were either menaced or menaces. Jobs needed to be protected. The desires of the many often trumped the needs of the learner.

Microsoft generously offered to bring the laptop message to American schools, but their promotional videos pushed desks back into rows and teachers stood at the front of classrooms directing their students to use Excel to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. Over emphasis on clerical “business” applications – were manifest in elaborate projects designed to justify (shoehorn) the use of Excel or Powerpoint in an unchanged curriculum. Many of these projects have the dubious distinction of being mechanically impressive while educationally pointless. Our gullible embrace of false complexity increases as the work is projected in a darkened classroom.

I’ve developed Murray’s Law to describe the way in which many schools assimilate powerful technology. “Every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processing power of today, and do things twice as trivial with those computers.”

There is a fundamental difference between technology and computing, which can be seen in the words themselves. One is a noun, the other a verb, What we saw students do with technology at the CCL was active, engaged, compelling, sophisticated learning.  They were computing, and similar experiences for all students can transform the experience of school.

What are you really saying?

I know that many of you must be thinking, “Does Gary really believe that everyone should be a programmer?” My answer is, “No, but every child should experience the opportunity to program a computer during her K-12 education.” Critics of my position will say things like, “Not every person needs to program or will even like it.” To these people I suggest that not every kid needs to learn to write haiku or sand a tie rack in woodshop. However, we require millions of children to do so because we believe it is either rewarding, of cultural value or offers a window onto potential forms of human expression.

Despite our high-tech society’s infinite dependence on programming and the impressive rewards for computing innovation, many people find the notion of programming repulsive. Everyone wants their child to earn Bill Gates’ money, but only if they never have to cut a line of code. Educators especially need to get past this hysteria rooted in fear and ignorance for the sake of the children in our care. (this sentence is optional if you feel it is inflammatory)

I do not understand why anyone would question the value of offering programming experiences to children.

It is unseemly for schools to determine that a tiny fraction of the student population is capable of using computers in an intellectually rich way. The “drill for the test” curriculum of the A.P. Computer Science course serves only a few of the most technically sophisticated students. That is elitism.

Children enjoy programming when engaged in a supportive environment. The study of other disciplines may be enhanced through the ability to concretize the formal. For example, complex mathematical concepts become understandable through playful manipulation, graphical expression of abstractions or the application of those concepts in service of a personal goal. It would be difficult to argue that mathematics education, at the very least, would not be enriched through programming.

Schools need to make a sufficient number of computers with powerful software available for the transparent use of every child across all disciplines. Schools also have an obligation to offer a more inclusive selection of courses designed for a more diverse student body interested in learning with and about computers. Courses in software design, digital communication, robotics, or computer science are but a few options. The Generation Y program, in which students lend their technological expertise to teachers who want to integrate technology into their lessons provides another outlet for authentic practice.

Whither computing?

I wonder when the educational computing community decided to replace the word. computing, with technologyThe Computing Teacher became Learning and Leading with TechnologyClassroom Computer Learning begot Technology and Learning Magazine. Conference speakers began diminishing the power of the computer by lumping all sorts of objects into the catch-all of technology. Computers are in fact a technology, but they are now spoken of in the same breath as the blackboard, chalk, filmstrip projector or Waterpik. Computing was never to be mentioned again in polite company.

I recently read the conference program for a 1985 educational computing conference. The topics of discussion and sessions offered are virtually the same as at similar events today. The only difference is that all mentions of programming have disappeared from the marketplace of ideas.

It seems ironic that educators fond of reciting how kids know so much about computers act as if the computer was just invented. We should be unimpressed by breathless tales of children web surfing or using a word processor to write a school report. My standards are much higher. We will cheat a second generation of microcomputer-age students if we do not raise our game and acknowledge that so much more is possible.

If we concur that kids are at least comfortable with computers, if not fluent, then teachers have a responsibility to build on the fluency of computer-savvy kids. This is a classroom gift, like an early reader, a natural soprano or a six year-old dinosaur expert. It is incumbent on schools and their personnel to steer such students in more challenging and productive directions. Teachers have an obligation to respect the talents, experience and knowledge of students by creating authentic opportunities for growth.

If the youngest children can “play” doctor, lawyer, teacher or fireman, why can’t they imagine themselves as software designers? Open-ended software construction environments designed for children, like MicroWorlds, make it possible for children of all ages to view themselves as competent and creative producers of knowledge. Too few students know that such accomplishments are within reach.  This failure results from a leadership, vision, and professional knowledge deficit.

While school computing fades from memory, keyboarding instruction inexplicably remains a K-12 staple from coast to coast. Computer assisted instruction, schemes designed to reduce reading to a high-stakes race and low-level technical skills dominate the use of computers in schools. In the hands of a clever curriculum committee, “uses scroll bars” can be part of a nine-year scope and sequence.

Examples of kids composing music, constructing robots, or designing their own simulations are too hard to find. More than a quarter century has passed since Mr. Jones taught me to program. Yet, children in that school are now compelled to complete a keyboarding class. There can be no rational justification for so blatant a dumbing-down of the curriculum.

Computing Changes Everything

There are so many ways in which children may use computers in authentic ways. Low-cost MIDI software and hardware offers even young children a vehicle for musical composition. The 1990 NCTM Standards indicated that fifty percent of mathematics has been invented since World War II. This mathematics is visual, experimental and rooted in computing. It may even engage kids in the beauty, function and magic of mathematics.

In Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, author Timothy Ferris describes how amateur astronomers armed with telescopes, computers and Net connections are making substantive contributions to the field of astronomy. For the first time in history, children possess the necessary tools to be scientists and to engage in scientific communities.

MacArthur Genius Stephen Wolfram has written a revolutionary new 1,280 page book, A New Kind of Science. The book illustrates his theory that the universe and countless other disciplines may be reduced to a simple algorithm. Scientists agree that if just a few percent of Wolfram’s theories are true, much of what we thought we knew could be wrong and many other cosmic mysteries may be solved. Wolfram believes that a human being is no more intelligent than a cloud and both may be created with a simple computer program.

A New Kind of Science starts with very a big bang.

“Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs.”

You do not have to take Wolfram’s word for it. With the $65 A New Kind of Science Explorer software, you and your students can explore more than 450 of Wolfram’s experiments. The visual nature of cellular automata – the marriage of science, computer graphics and mathematics – allows children to play on the frontiers of scientific thought while trying to prove, disprove or extend the theories of one of the world’s greatest scientists. The intellectual habits required to “think with” this tool are rooted in computer programming.

I recently told Alan Kay that while I was hardly a mathematician, I knew what it felt like to have a mathematical idea. He generously replied, “Then you are a mathematician, you’re just not a professional.” The work of Seymour Papert shows us that through the explicit act of computing children can too be mathematicians and scientists.

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. …We are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing.  So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else. “ (Papert 1999)

We can neutralize our critics and improve the lives of kids if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things – including: robots, music compositions, digital movies, streaming radio and simulations. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Examples of competent children computing bring many current educational practices into question. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into what should be education’s golden age.

SIDEBAR

Why Should Schools Compute?

Computing offers an authentic context for doing & making mathematics
Traditional arithmetic and mathematical processes are provided with a genuine context for use. New forms of mathematics become accessible to learners.

Computing concretizes the abstract
Formal concepts like feedback, variables and causality become concrete through use.

Computing offers new avenues for creative expression
Computing makes forms of visual art and music composition possible for even young children while providing a canvas for the exploration of new art forms like animation. A limitless audience is now possible.

Computer science is a legitimate science
Computer science plays a revolutionary role in society and in every other science. It should be studied alongside biology, physics and chemistry.

Computing supports a plurality of learning styles
There are many ways to approach a problem and express a solution.

Computing offers preparation for a plethora of careers
There is a shortage of competent high-tech professionals in our economy

Computing grants agency to the user, not the computer
Rather than the computer programming the child, the child can control the computer.

Debugging offers ongoing opportunities to enhance problem-solving skills
Nothing works correctly the first time. The immediacy of concrete feedback makes debugging a skill that will serve learners for a lifetime.

Computing rewards habits of mind such as persistence, curiosity and perspective
Computers mediate a conversation with self in which constant feedback and incremental success propels learners to achieve beyond their expectations.


References

Cavallo, D. (1999) “Project Lighthouse in Thailand: Guiding Pathways to Powerful Learning.” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.

Duckworth, E. (1996) The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. NY: Teachers College Press.

Ferris, T. (2002) Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., eds. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Levy, S. (2002) The Man Who Cracked the Code to Everything.Wired Magazine. Volume 10, Issue 6. June 2002.

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1990) “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.

Papert, S. (1991) “Situating Constructionism.” In Constructionism, in  Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Papert, S. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1996) The Connected Family. Atlanta: Longstreet Publishing.

Papert, S. (1999) “The Eight Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory.” Unpublished internal document. South Portland, Maine.

Papert, S. (1999) “What is Logo? Who Needs it?” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.

Papert, S. (2000) “What’s the Big Idea? Steps toward a pedagogy of idea power.” IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 39, Nos 3&4, 2000.

Resnick, M., and Ocko, S. (1991) “LEGO/Logo: Learning Through and About Design.” In Constructionism, in  Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Stager, G. (2000) “Dream Bigger” in Little, J. and Dixon, B. (eds.) Transforming Learning: An Anthology of Miracles in Technology-Rich Classrooms. Melbourne, Australia: Kids Technology Foundation.

Stager, G. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Copenhagen.

Stager, G. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the National Educational Computing Conference. San Antonio.

“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html

Thornburg, D. (1984) Exploring Logo Without a Computer. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Thornburg, D. (1986) Beyond Turtle Graphics: Further Explorations of Logo. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Turkle, S. (1991) “Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete.” In Constructionism. Idit Harel and Seymour Papert (eds.), Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Wolfram, S. (2002) A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, Inc.

“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html.

ibid…

Note: I wrote this article in 1993, three years after I began at working at the world’s first two laptop schools, including Melbourne, Australia’s Methodist Ladies’ College. By 1993, I had worked in dozens of Aussie “laptop schools.” It would still be several years before American schools began to embrace 1:1 computing.

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

It took eighteen years since Papert and Solomon published this prediction, but in 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia embarked on a learning adventure still unparalleled throughout the world. At that time the school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructionism. The unifying factor would be that every child in the school (from grades 5-12) would own a personal notebook computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum with a belief that their ideas and work were being stored and manipulated on their own personal computer. Ownership of the notebook computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. The personal computer is a vehicle for building something tangible outside of your head – one of the tenets of constructionism. By 1994, 2,000 teachers and students will have a personal notebook computer. [at MLC alone]

Personal computing in schools not only challenges the status quo of computers in schools, but creates new and profound opportunities for the teaching staff at MLC. Schools often take computers so seriously (ie… hiring special computer teachers, scheduling times at which students may use a computer) that they trivialize their potential as personal objects to think with. Computers are ubiquitous and personal throughout society, just not in schools.

The challenge of getting 150 teachers to embrace not only the technology, but the classroom change that would accompany widespread and continuous LogoWriter use was enormous. Thus far the school’s efforts have paid off in a more positive approach to the art of learning on the part of students and teachers. MLC has provided their staff with varied and numerous opportunities lo grow and learn as professionals.

A Critical Choice

The laptop initiative inspired by Liddy Nevile and MLC Principal, David Loader, was never viewed as a traditional educational research experiment where neither success or failure mattered much. Personal computing was part of the school’s commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. Steps were taken to ensure that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. It was agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea more important than the computers themselves. What was done with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was MLC’s primary software of choice.

Although educational change is considered to occur at a geologically slow pace, the MLC community (parents, teachers, students, administrators) has immersed itself in some areas of profound growth in just a few short years. The introduction of large numbers of personal computers has served as one catalyst for this “intellectual growth spurt.” MLC teachers routinely engage each other in thoughtful discussions of learning, teaching, and the nature of school. While similar conversations undoubtedly occurred prior to the introduction of personal computing, today’s discussions are enriched by personal learning experience and reflections on the learning of their students in this computer-rich environment. Traditional curricula, pedagogy, and assessment are constantly being challenged. One teacher recently suggested that mathematics no longer be taught. Such an idea would have been unthinkable in a conservative church school ten years ago.

Teachers in many schools rightfully view the computer with suspicion as just one more mandated fad or as a threat to their professionalism as large Orwellian teaching systems are unloaded on the market place. The national average of students to computers in the United States is nineteen to one. The State of Florida recently announced that it will spend $17 million (US) in 1992-93 to rewire schools in order to make way for computers.’ $17 million could buy at least 20,000 students their own notebook computer. Schools routinely spend a fortune building fortresses, called computer labs complete with special furniture.2

The personal computing experience at MLC has been different. In less than four years, 1600 children and teachers have personal computers and approximately 40 teachers in one school have made LogoWriter part of their repertoire. Some schools spend more time deciding on a spelling workbook. Given the changes that have accompanied classroom computer use, this initiative would have been cheap at twice the price. 3

Challenging Our Notions of School

The act of asking every parent to purchase a notebook computer for their child3 was not nearly as courageous or challenging as the way in which MLC has chosen to use computers. The quaint idea of drilling discrete facts into kids’ heads with computer-assisted instruction was dismissed and so was the metaphor of the “computer as tool.” The popular tool metaphor is a based on the business paradigm of increasing productivity and efficiency. I would argue that there is seldom an occasion in school when the goal needs to be increasing a student’s efficiency or productivity. The discussion of educational tools is an odd phenomenon. One would be hard pressed to find another example of the tool metaphor used historically in education literature. Critics would suggest that the tool metaphor is the result of commercial forces.

MLC has chosen to guide its thinking about personal computing by the ideas of “constructionism” and by viewing the computer as “material.” Constructionism is the idea of Jean Piaget and extended by Seymour Papert to mean that learning is active and occurs when an individual finds herself in a meaningful context for making connections between fragments of knowledge, the present situation, and past experiences. The person constructs her own knowledge by assembling personally significant mental models. Therefore you learn in a vibrant social context in which individuals have the opportunity to share ideas, collaborate, make things and have meaningful experiences. After the first year of using laptops, the seventh and eighth grade humanities teachers asked for History, English, Geography and Religious Education to be taught in an interdisciplinary three-period block. This scheduling modification allowed for students to engage in substantive projects.

The computer as material metaphor is based on the belief that children and teachers are naturally talented at making things. The computer should be seen as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression – an integral part of the learning process. In this context a gifted computer-using teacher is not one who can recite a reference manual, but one who can heat-up a body of content when it comes in contact with the interests and experiences of the child. This teacher recognizes when it might be appropriate to involve the computer in the learning process and allows the student to mold this personal computer space into a personal expression of the subject matter.

Staff Development

MLC’s visionary principal, David Loader, once said, “We have not yet discovered truth.” This idea is at the core of MLC’s approach to staff development. While every teacher is expected to use technology in appropriate ways, their learning styles are respected and catered for via a range of professional learning opportunities. In-classroom consultants such as myself, visiting experts, conference participation, peer collaboration, university courses, courses offered by the school’s community education department, and residential whole-learning experiences all accompany the common afterschool workshop. Teachers have identified that sharing ideas with colleagues and the residential events have been their most rewarding staff development experiences.

I have led four multi-day residential inservices at which teachers learn about learning, Logo, themselves, and each other in a playful collegial environment. The quality of the experience for most teachers and successful learning outcomes of the “Logo slumber parties” makes the cost of sending fifteen teachers to the Hilton for three days inexpensive when compared with the cost of a never-ending series of ineffective two-hour afterschool workshops from here to eternity. MLC also recognizes two outstanding LogoWriter-using teachers by reducing their number of classes and asking them to assist other teachers in their classrooms. It is not uncommon for one teacher interested in sharing a recent insight to voluntarily offer a workshop for colleagues.

Teachers at MLC were introduced to computers by being challenged to reflect on their own learning while solving problems of personal significance in the software environment, LogoWriter – the software the students would be using. I would argue that educational progress occurs when a teacher is able lo see how the particular innovation benefits a group of learners. These teachers come to respect the learning processes of their students by experiencing the same sort of challenges and joy. The teacher and learner in such a culture are often one-and-the-­same. Other teachers find the enthusiasm and pride of their colleagues infectious. MLC is using LogoWriter to help free the learner to express herself in unlimited ways – not bound by the limits of the curriculum or artificial (school) boundaries between subject areas.

LogoWriter (and its new successor, MicroWorlds) are the result of twenty-five years worth of research by Seymour Papert and his colleagues at MIT. Papert has been committed to extending the ideas of Piaget by designing open-ended software construction environments in which learners could express themselves in undetermined ways and make connections between personal interests, experiences, and knowledge.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers around the world use Logo in their classrooms.

Students at MLC have used LogoWriter across the curriculum in numerous and varied ways. A student designing a hieroglyphic word processor, a longitudinal rain data grapher, or Olympic games simulation must come in conlact with many mathematical concepts including randomness, decimals, percent, sequencing, cartesian coordinate geometry, functions, visual representations of data, linear measurement and orientation, while focusing on a history topic. An aspect of ancient Egyptian civilization was brought lo life by first drawing Egyptian urns and then designing pots that portrayed contemporary Australian life. Their teacher remarked at how traditional pencil and paper artistic skills no longer created an inequity in personal expression. A sixth grade girl was free to explore the concept of orbiting planets by designing a visual race between the planets on the screen. The more the student projects blur the distinctions between subject areas, the more the curriculum is rethought. Fantastic examples of student work abound.

Two particular projects by MLC students warrant attention because of the ways in which they challenge us to rethink the organization of schools. Seventh grade students were assigned the task of designing a LogoWriter program to solve a linear equation, such as 3X + 4 = 16. While such a task is typically too advanced for twelve-year-old students, the girls at MLC have gained much mathematical experience through their computer use and are therefore capable of solving such problems. One girl went well beyond the assignment of solving the equation by not only writing a computer program to solve similar equations – she created an elaborate cartoon of a girl walking into her bedroom, complaining to her mother about her difficult math homework, and then a magical computer appeared and showed the user how to use the equation solving program. The student extended the typical dry algebra assignment with great joy by demonstrating her creative art and communications abilities. Another student’s linear equation solving program included the playing of a complete Mozart sonata. Every note of the sonata had to be programmed in a way the computer understands. The mathematical experiences of both students were greatly enhanced because their computing environment allowed them to express their mathematical knowledge in their own voice. There is great hope for schools when student’s interests and experiences are encouraged to converge with the teacher’s curriculum.

Another example 1 wish to share illuminates how teachers have been forced to reflect on their role in the learning process and take action based on observations of student learning in the computer-rich environment. The French teacher at MLC was provided with a French language version of LogoWriter. It was originally thought that their students might find it interesting to “speak” to the computer in another language. One French teacher was intrigued by the idea, but did not know anything about LogoWriter. She felt comfortable asking a math teacher for help ­this type of professional collaboration is now commonplace at MLC.

The math department offered some eighth grade girls the opportunity to do their math assignments, not only on the computer, but in French. Students in several classes were intrigued by the challenge. A math teacher asked his colleague how to say a few phrases in French so that he could leave comments in French on their students’ projects. This teacher’s demonstrable respect for his student’s work and colleague’s subject area is exceptional by contemporary standards.

A few weeks passed before the French teacher visited the math class. The teacher was not only pleased to observe the students learning mathematics, computer programming, and French, but was ecstatic to find that the girls spontaneously speaking French. This veteran teacher later reported that she had never witnessed students of this age actually speaking French outside of a French class lesson. In the LogoWriter environment language is active ­the computer does something if you combine words in the right or wrong way and you receive immediate feedback.

This experience has caused a small group of teachers from a variety of disciplines to propose that the school allow them to create a French immersion class in the junior secondary school. Teachers who have not used much French since university are so excited by the learning of their students that they arc willing to practice the language along­side the students they are teaching. Now, one year-seven class does all of their LogoWriter assignments in French LogoWriter. This sort of professional risk-taking is more common in constructionist environments than in traditional school settings. Risk-taking is an essential element of self-esteem and a critical characteristic of great teachers.

Another language teacher at MLC recently remarked that there seemed lo be much more talk of French LogoWriter use by other subject teachers than in the language department. There may be something important in her observation. Perhaps the language department does not see the use of Logo in their discipline as revolutionary. However, mathematics, science, and humanities teachers are now excited about French!

Challenges for the Future

MLC faces the obvious challenges associated with helping teachers become better Logo programmers keeping the computers functioning. MLC also needs to encourage the collection of “Logo literature” – a canon of exemplary LogoWriter projects that may be deconstructed by other students and become part of the school’s culture. We are also working to provide students with opportunities to create more interactive programs. Most of the LogoWriter projects designed by MLC students have been expository in nature – databases, reports, tutorials. Much has been accomplished using very little LogoWriter. This is both a tribute to the MLC teachers and to LogoWriter itself.

The solutions to challenges, such as the one posed by David Loader, that “schools are not always very good places for children,” or James Britton’s, “schools must be more hospitable lo children’s intentions,” are much less obvious.

There is a belief among many teachers that constructionism, Logo, freedom, respect – whatever you wish to call it – is appropriate only for the students who have demonstrated educational achievement in the traditional ways. These teachers also believe that while they are capable of teaching in a constructive environment, the majority of their colleagues are not. This belief structure leads to depriving many students of potentially rewarding experiences and prevents more teachers from serving their students.

Kids have much more ability and enthusiasm as learners than schools often ask them to exhibit. Most teachers are better than schools ever give them the opportunity to demonstrate. We must create an environment in which teachers will feel secure in creating open-ended learning opportunities for all of their students.

A concrete example of how this phenomenon manifests itself is in the way mathematics and Logo are treated in MLC’s junior secondary school (grades 7-8). The standard syllabus is still followed, without enough concern for the new insights the students have as a result of their Logo-use. A syllabus of conservative teacher-conceived LogoWriter projects is assigned each year and teachers are given solution sheets for the assignments. It is amazing how quickly the solutions given to well-meaning mathematics teachers find their way into the students’ projects. The primary purpose of using LogoWriter in the domain of mathematics is for the learner to confront intellectual obstacles that need to be overcome. Learners need time to develop such strategies. Handing a student a solution sheet prematurely prevents the student from mathematical understanding any deeper than that derived from “full-frontal teaching” and the student is also unlikely to gain any programming fluency. Teachers are often too concerned with covering curriculum, student “success,” and the calendar.

This is understandable. No adult wants to see a child fail, although we create such opportunities with regularity. When a year-seven teacher can’t trust what the year-six teacher does and the year-eight teacher does, they must reinvent the subject each year in a teacher-centered way. The two year seven girls designing a LogoWriter tennis game are exploring many sophisticated mathematical concepts at an appropriate time for them, but a teacher of 30 kids who teaches something called, year-seven mathematics, cannot depend on serendipity. This teacher would feel more confident that all students would learn important knowledge and problem solving strategies if their entire school experience was one that respected tennis video games or student designed software tutorials on how to annoy other people. A school that creates these sorts of personal learning opportunities on a regular and ongoing basis, can depend on students learning most of the important mathematical concepts in a much more meaningful way, perhaps not always in the same sequence. The Western tradition of schools conspires against such meaningful learning.

The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage. As long as you are determined to cover everything, you actually ensure that most kids are not going to understand. You’ve got to take enough time to get kids deeply involved in something so they can think about it in lots of different ways and apply it – not just at school but at home and on the street and so on. (Howard Gardner, 1993)

The entire point of all of the examples I have given is that computers serve best when they allow everything to change. (Seymour Papert, 1993. Page 149)

Teachers are not to blame for this situation. Most work in a repressive environment, mired in archaic traditions, and incapable of the “mega-change” discussed by Papert and underway at MLC. What schools must realize is that instruction leaves much more to chance than construction. We have seen the disappointing result of traditional schooling’s reliance on instruction. The issue is more complex than merely asking, “Can we do any worse?” Logo-using teachers at schools like MLC have “lived” in environments in which students love learning. These professionals know that all children are capable learners. Their insights, ideas, and experiences must be trusted. Their learning stories and those of their students must be shared.

Teachers need to work in an environment that respects their personal insights and encourages routine to derive from their practical experiences. There is a menacing voice in the heads of many teachers that tells them to teach in other ways than they know are successful and rewarding. The pressing question becomes, “What sorts of schools can we design that will make the voice in our head supportive of our posi tive honest experiences as teachers and learners?”

Einstein was quoted as saying, “Education is wasted on youth.” I would like to play with this idea by proposing that, “Schools are wasted on adults.” An honest appraisal of traditional schooling would show how schools have been created to meet the needs of adults: childcare; passing-down traditions and morality; transmitting knowledge deemed valuable by a select group of adults. MLC is working to become a model for schools committed to creating rich environments that respect the learning of students and value the insights of adults.

NOTES

  1. Electronic Learning Magazine – September, I992
  2. Corporations, such as Apple Computer, must realize that it is possible to do good and to do well simultaneously. It makes a lot more sense to sell 1,000 notebook computers to a school than to sell 10 for a computer lab. During the summer of 1992 Powerbook 100 notebook computers were being liquidated by Apple for less than $800 each. Perhaps hardware manufacturers will wise-up some day and market such low-cost powerful computers to K-12 schools.
  3. Each MLC teacher interested in owning a personal notebook computer received a substantial subsidy from the school in order to purchase a computer. The school decided against fully funding the computer for two reasons. a) The teacher had flexibility to purchase the computer that met his/her specific needs and b) Teachers were being asked to make a personal commitment to personal computing. Each year a $400-$700 stipend has been available to teachers interested in upgrading their hardware or purchasing peripherals.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brandt, R. (1993), “On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner,” Educational Leadership. April, 1993.

Franz, S. & S. Papert (1988), “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time,” Columbia Teachers College.

Record.

James, M. (1993), “Learners and Laptops,” Logo in Our Laps, Melbourne, Australia: MLC (In press)

Loader, D. (1993), “Restructuring an Australian School,” The Computing Teacher. March, 1993.

Loader, D. & L. Nevile (1991), “Educational Computing: Resourcing the Future,” IARTV Occasional Paper.

Jolimont, Australia: September, 1991.

Papert, S. (1993), The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. NY: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1987), “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” Transcription of a speech presented at the Children in an Information Age Conference in Sofia Bulgaria, May 19,1987.

Papert, Seymour (1981), Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Solomon, C. & S. Papert (1972) “Twenty Things to Do With a Computer,” Educational Technology.