On Christmas Eve (2016), the world lost one of its most profound thinkers when learning theorist, Dr. Edith Ackermann, left us at age 70. Anyone blessed with even the most casual encounter with Edith embraced her as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. She bestowed boundless respect upon anyone trying to make the world more beautiful, just, or creative. Edith’s grace danced into a room like a cool breeze awakening its occupants and setting their sights towards what truly matters.
Edith was a giant among learning theorists, even if under-appreciated and a best kept secret. Her work focused on the intersection of play, design, childhood, and technology. She worked closely with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Ernst von Glasersfeld – three of the most important experts on learning ever. Her insights were invaluable to the LEGO Company, MIT students, architects, and educators around the world.
Edith was always there to help me clarify my thinking and to take an idea one stop past my anticipated exit. She was a pal with whom you could walk arm in arm discussing almost anything, laugh boisterously, and gossip quietly. We disliked many of the same ideas and people, but Edith was just much better at hiding her disdain.
Perhaps, Edith’s remarkable perspective came from being an outsider. Despite the profound impact she had on innumerable students and colleagues, I never got the sense that the testosterone-oozing world of MIT afforded her the respect or security she so richly deserved.
Shamefully, I do not know much about Edith’s history or personal life; yet another painful reminder that we should do everything possible to know our friends better. Therefore, I will share some thoughts about her work and what she meant to me.
I don’t remember when I first met Edith. I think it was in 2000 when Seymour Papert sent me to sub for him as the keynote speaker at a conference held at the Piaget Archives in Geneva. Papert failed to tell the organizers that 1) he wasn’t coming or 2) that I was his replacement. The entire story is a hilarious comedy of errors that I’ll share another day.
Edith and I attended many EuroLogo (now Constructionism) Conferences and worked together 15+ years ago in Mexico City leading a workshop as members of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group. Several years ago, I invited Edith to be a guest speaker at my 2014 Constructing Modern Knowledge institute. I set aside concerns that her Swiss accent, quiet demeanor, and brilliant intellect would not work in a room full of predominantly American educators. Her unrivaled genius made the risk worthwhile.
Edith’s wisdom, passion, humanity, and generosity of spirit made her an immediate favorite of the very educators who others treat as low-skill labor in need of a 7-step plan for raising achievement. The next year, Edith spent most of the institute with us interacting informally with participants and appearing on a panel discussion with two of my other heroes, David Loader and Deborah Meier. Last summer, despite her ongoing battle with Cancer, Edith Ackermann spent all four days of CMK helping each of us make meaning out of our individual and collective experiences.
Edith taught us so much.
One powerful idea she shared was that “Making is a way of seeing.” Edith had a gift for bringing into focus what others miss. She invited us to “lean in,” not in the vulgar career climbing form advocated by Sheryl Sandberg, but as a way of becoming one with nature, the community, ideas, beauty, and one’s soul.
I would like to share three very special memories of Edith Ackermann at Constructing Modern Knowledge.
After nine years of effort, I managed to convince Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi to participate in Constructing Modern Knowledge. Edith and Carla were old friends who greeted each other with great love and respect. Their mutual affection was truly touching. During the institute, I stole a little time to show Carla and Edith how Tickle (an iOS dialect of Scratch) could be used to bring drones and a variety of robots to life. They appreciated the technological wizardry for a split second and then became preschoolers imagining how the different toys could play, communicate and love one another. Both experts were so in tune with the inner lives of children that they were able to wear the spirit of childhood play with great ease and abundant joy.
A tacit theme of Constructing Modern Knowledge involves creating the conditions by which each participating educator may think about how their particular learning experience connects with their own priory experience and future classroom practice. Superficially, our speakers may seem to have nothing to do with one another or the sorts of project work undertaken by CMK attendees. In 2015, I invited two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, 86 year-old pianist Barry Harris and 89 year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, to perform a masterclass at CMK. Edith not only understood immediately why I invited them to perform at an event about learning and making, but she was thrilled to spend time with Barry Harris whose music she knew. Edith had also watched videos of Barry teaching. Just take a look at the joy with which she approached this encounter.
I work all year organizing Constructing Modern Knowledge and try to steal an hour to indulge a passion of mine, taking great friends and colleagues to Cremeland, an “al fresco” roadside stand in Manchester, New Hampshire known for its fabulous fried fish and ice cream. The first year Edith joined the CMK team, I took her and a couple of colleagues for our secret lunch at Cremeland. You order food at one window, eat at picnic tables in the parking lot, and then return to a window at the opposite end of the building for decadent ice cream.
There is always a bit of chaos when a group of people are ordering from an unknown menu through a tiny window, but throw Edith’s Swiss accent into the mix and watch hilarity ensue.
Server: Can I take your order?
Edith: I’ll have the haddock platter.
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: NO! Haddock not Hot Dog!
This became a private joke between us and when I gave the CMK faculty and speakers t-shirts with chalkboards printed on them, Edith wrote, “Haddock, not hot dog,” on hers.
Au revoir dear Edith…. We love you and will miss you more than you could ever know.
For further reading…
- Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
- Cultures of creativity and modes of appropriation: From DIY (Do It Yourself) to BIIT (Be In It Together)
- The Craftsman, The Trickster, and The Poet “Re-Souling” The Rational Mind
- Minds in Motion, Media in Transition Growing up in the digital age: Areas of change
- Amusement, Delight, and Whimsy: Humor Has Its Reasons that Reason Cannot Ignore
- Microgravity Playscapes – Play in Long-Term Space Missions (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- Programming For The Natives: What is it? What’s In It For The Kids?
- Systematic Creativity In The Digital Realm
- LEGO Learning Foundation Future of Learning Whitepaper (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- To Know is to Relate: The Art of Distancing in Human Transactions (1997)
- More papers by Edith Ackermann
Constructionism 2010 Talk – Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
There are aspects of the “art of teaching” I have long taken for granted, but are apparently no longer taught in preservice education programs. Classroom centers is one such critical topic. Since I cannot find the seminal book(s) or papers on the importance or creation of centers, I created the following document for the school I work for.
Thoughts on Classroom Centers (v 1.0)
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
THE CENTER APPROACH
Centers are clearly delineated areas in the classroom where students may work independently or in small groups on purposeful activities without direct or persistent teacher involvement. Centers may be designed by the teacher or co-constructed with students. Deliberate materials are presented in a center to scaffold a child’s learning, or nurture creativity. Such materials may be utilized in both a predictable and serendipitous fashion. Centers afford students with the necessary time to take pride in one’s work, overcome a significant challenge, develop a new talent, or deepen a relationship (with a person or knowledge domain).
“Learning as a process of individual and group construction –
Each child, like each human being, is an active constructor of knowledge, competencies, and autonomies, by means of original learning processes that take shape with methods and times that are unique and subjective in the relationship with peers, adults, and the environment.
The learning process is fostered by strategies of research, comparison of ideas, and co-participation. It makes use of creativity, uncertainty, intuition, [and] curiosity. It is generated in play and in the aesthetic, emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions, which it interweaves and nurtures. It is based on the centrality of motivation and the pleasures of learning.” (Reggio Children, 2010)
- Minimize direct instruction (lecture)
- Recognize that students learn differently and at different rates
- Reduce coercion
- Honor student choice
- Increase student agency
- Make classrooms more democratic
- Enhance student creativity
- Build student competence and independence
- Employ more flexible uses of instructional time
- Inspire cross-curricular explorations
- Develop the classroom as the “3rd teacher”
- Encourage more student-centered classrooms
- Respect the centrality of the learner in learning
- Create more productive contexts for learning
- Supports the Hundred Languages of Children
- Match a child’s remarkable capacity for intensity
- Provide opportunities for teachers to sit alongside students
- Make learning visible
- Shift the teacher’s role from lecturer to research responsible for making private thinking public – invisible thinking visible
- Team teaching in the best collegial sense
- Increased self-reliance, self-regulation and personal responsibility
- Shift in agency from teacher to student
- Development of project-management skill
- Supports project-based learning
- Opportunities for “flow” experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)
- Intensify learning experiences
- Encourage focus
- Expand opportunities for:
- Creative play
- Informal collaboration
- Appropriation of powerful ideas
- Acknowledges the curious, creative, social and active nature of children
- Matches the individual attention spans of students
- Reduces boredom
- Increases student engagement
- Teachers get to know each student (better)
- Recognition that quality work takes time
- Acknowledges the centrality of the learner in knowledge construction
- Thoughtful documentation of student learning by teachers
- Minimize misbehavior
A place for experimentation
An area where a long-term project may be undertaken and securely stored
A place where students play games that helps develop specific concepts, logic, or problem-solving skills
An art center where children sculpt, paint, animate, draw, etc… with sufficient light and appropriate materials.
Creative play center
- Dress-up area
- Puppet theatre
- Blocks/LEGO/Construction with found materials
A comfortable well-lit area, stocked with a variety of high-interest reading material
The class pet to observe, care for, and in some cases, play with
Classroom garden to care for
A setting where students can listen to recordings or watch a video with headphones
- Learning centers should neither be chores or Stations of the Cross. Flexibility, student choice, and actions that do not disturb classmates are hallmarks of the centers approach.
- Centers should not be managed with a stopwatch. “Fairness” is not a priority, except if there are scarce materials.
- Learning center use should not be used as a reward or punishment.
TIPS FOR PREPARING A CENTER
- Create clear and concise prompts, questions to ponder or project ideas. Place these prompts on index cards, a single sheet of paper, or in a binder.
- Less is more! Do not clutter up a center or overwhelm a learner with too many options.
- Keep prompts simple and not overly prescriptive. Allow for serendipity.
- Rotate out “stale” materials – things that students no longer show interest in
- Assign classroom roles for tidying-up centers
- Place louder centers away from quieter areas in the classroom.
- Provide safety materials and instruction when appropriate at centers
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Reprint ed.). NY: Harper Perennial.
Reggio Children. (2010). Indications – Preschools and infant toddler centres of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (L. Morrow, Trans.). In Infant toddler centers and preschools of Instituzione of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (Ed.): Reggio Children.
As far too many American schools become obsessed with time-on-task, achievement, and beating the rest of the world in long division, play, recess, and even socializing over lunch fade into memory. Kids in schools lucky enough to still have art, drama, or music programs often have to wake before dawn to attend “zero period” or stay at school until dark, followed by an obscene quantity of homework. Stress levels are up, childhood obesity increases, school shootings have become commonplace and somehow still, the Dickensian shopkeepers tyrannically shaping education policy wish to extend the school day, lengthen the school year, and speed up the conveyor belt they mistakenly confuse for a learning environment.
Yelling, screaming, running
Turning tree branches into magic wands
Flopping on the ground (“because you’re supposed to”)
Trying on a cape
Wearing funny glasses
Studying a leaf
Cuddling a stuffed stingray
Driving an invisible car
Shouting pow pow pow while waving an imaginary weapon
Tickling a furby
Dressing like a fairy princess
Making new friends
Wrapping a scarf around your friend’s face
Kicking a pal down a slide Shooting hoops
Hissing at classmates
Smooshing a flower into your hand and then licking the resulting pollen
Cleaning up litter
Four out of five kindergarteners agree.
Foam blocks suck.
Yesterday, I received a copy of Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, co-authored by Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel and Beth Taylor. In the spirit of Vivian Paley and Jonathan Kozol (both of whom blurbed the book), Meier and co. give voice to the spontaneous voice and learning of children in their care.
Two particular passages jumped out at me:
In the process of turning schools into competitive institutions, “racing to the top,” we end up threatening the spirit of childhood. Because of our own limited histories and the generally accepted language around schooling – “grade level,” “ahead or behind,” “competent or deficient,” “differentiated learning,” – we begin to lose sight of what education means. These become the only words for describing children in school – children like those we observe playing in this book. “Knowing children well” becomes a matter of looking at test data. (page 107)
Leaving no time or space in education for children’s “playful” efforts to make sense of the world risks the future of only of poetry and science, but also our political liberties. The habits of playfulness in early life are the essential foundations upon which we can build a K-12 education that would foster, nourish and sustain the apparent “absurdity” of democracy. (page 68)
Check out all of Debroah Meier’s stunning books on teaching, learning and school reform here at the Constructivist Consortium Bookstore. If you haven’t already read the classics, In Schools We Trust or The Power of Their Ideas, put them at the top of your summer reading pile.
While we’re on the subject of summer, there is still time to register for Constructing Modern Knowledge, July 12-15, 2010 in picturesque Manchester, NH. There you can actually work, play and learn with Deborah Meier, Aflie Kohn, James Loewen, Peter Reynolds and a bunch of educational computing pioneers!
It’s Superbowl Sunday (Go Saints!) and I just saw the first of what will undoubtedly be many public service announcements for Play 60, the NFL’s campaign to encourage play.
Are there children averse to play? Seems to me that play is the natural state of children.
So, who stole play? Is a play-eating virus ravishing our nation?
The real enemies of play are the folks who set school policy from the President of the United States down to some local school principals. That’s who is responsible for turning classrooms into joyless test-prep sweatshops free of recess, blocks, dress-up corners and increasingly, even physical education.
For too many American public school students, playing 60 minutes per day is as big of fantasy as a Detroit Lions Superbowl threepeat.
Consider my nephews, named “94th Percentile” and “Exceeds Expectations.” They live in a community 40 miles from New York City. There has NEVER been recess in their elementary or middle schools. After a rushed 20-minute silent lunch ( school is about socialization, right?), the kids are forced to participate in some forced march, called “Walk/Run.”
Due to a 45-minute commute. 94th and Exceeds board the school bus at 7 AM and return home at dusk. They then rush through a meal with their parents, followed by an hour or two of their parents yelling at them to complete their meaningless homework and then bedtime. Sometimes, there’s even time for a shower.
What there isn’t time for is play – or trumpet practice, bike riding, answering their uncle’s email, reading a book, karate or Scouts.
Playing for 60 minutes per day is a swell idea. I think kids should play as much as possible – all sorts of play, not just sports. That’s how kids learn, create, develop interpersonal skills and become productive citizens. The NFL Play60 campaign targets childhood obesity. Could school violence and the epidemic of attention deficit disorders possibly be rooted in a lack of play?
It’s also ironic that the NFL is combatting childhood obesity while simultaneously encouraging teenagers to weigh 300 pounds and sign 13 year-olds to USC football.
In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, John Taylor Gatto reminds us that one of the lessons of school is surveillance:
I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness, too.
I assign “homework” so that this surveillance extends into the household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood. (Gatto, 1991)
We would not have to “Save the Music” or create a charity advocating childhood play if we adults did the right thing and cared for children! Why don’t we try that at least 60 minutes per day?
- Read the February 1, 2010 New York Times Op-Ed article. Playing to Learn
- Read Susan Ohanian’s book, What Happened to Recess and Why are Our Children Struggling at Kindergarten?