CMK Founder Gary Stager, Ph.D. gave a presentation in November 2012 about the philosophy and practice of Constructing Modern Knowledge. The following video is a recording of that presentation about the institute.
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Girls and Technology – Overcoming Myths and Malpractice1
Presented at the 2002 Alliance For Girl Schools
Girls and Technology Conference
© May 2002 Gary S. Stager
It is indeed an honor to speak at this conference and share my experiences and expectations with such an august audience. My qualifications for this conference could be based on my two decades of work with technology and kids, the work I did in the early days of school laptop computing right here in Australia or the fact that I am the parent of two teenage girls. I originally suggested that this talk be titled, “I’m not sure why Dale Spender hates me,” based on my experience as Ms. Spender’s human piñata at an MLC dinner and the ironic fact that she went on to quote me extensively in one of her books.
The theme of this conference, girls and technology, implies a problem. Neither girls nor technology are the problem. If a problem does exist, it is with the men and women commonly identified as educators and to a lesser extent, parents. It is the intellectual timidity, professional indolence, imagination gap and what Seymour Papert calls, idea aversion that prevents us from meeting the needs of all digital age children. The greatest number of victims of such idea aversion may be girls since for reasons real and imagined. The prevailing myths that girls don’t like computers; girls need different technology; girls should learn to criticize technology; girls have adequate access and ample role models; school leaders are qualified to make technological decisions; and schools should be used as social sieves lead to the creation of pedagogical decisions ultimately detrimental to girls themselves.
Microcomputers and the global information infrastructure offer unprecedented opportunities for expanding the learning community and for children to engage with powerful ideas. The choice is between an increasingly irrelevant system of schooling or the realization of John Dewey’s dream for a learning environment in which children can achieve their full creative and intellectual potential. Computational and communication technology may be used as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression or as a tool for oppression. The first option makes schools better places for teachers and kids to learn, the second will hasten the demise of school’s monopoly on education.
It would be a shame if we missed the chance to revolutionize the learning environment if we were simply ignorant. It would be a sin to ignore the remarkable possibilities demonstrated right under our noses in order to preserve some quaint notion of 19th century education. We know how the combination of elevated expectations, respect for epistemological pluralism, a dash of creativity and ubiquitous can produce a learning renaissance because we’ve seen it in schools a tram-ride away.
The most important educational technology innovation in the past two decades began at Methodist Ladies’ College in 1989 when David Loader, a giant in girls’ education, committed his school to the proposition that every child should own a personal laptop computer. This was never intended as a stunt, experiment or project. David noticed that computers were getting more portable and affordable while anticipating that such a bold investment would pay great dividends for educators concerned with making schools what James Britton would describe as, “more hospitable to the intentions of children.”
Six years before the World Wide Web, Loader shared these provocative thoughts with his school community.
Apparently the sun cannot rise in present schools…
Unlike David Suzuki who dismisses computers as information processors, we see knowledge not so much as being processed but as being constructed in the classroom. John Dewey’s observation that the content of the lesson is the less important thing about learning, is relevant (here). – David Loader
Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent, than he will ever be again in his schooling – John Holt
This was the shot heard ‘round the world. Soon after laptops were delivered to MLC, impressive student LogoWriter projects inspired teachers to rethink their notions of curriculum, assessment, scheduling and most importantly, the under-appreciated learning abilities of their students. Humanities teachers demanded long uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish interdisciplinary collaborative projects. French teachers ventured into the uncharted waters of maths classrooms, boatloads of educators from around the world visited Kew and the idea of Marshmead was born.
Steve Costa, was patient zero – the first teacher in history to teach a class of girls each equipped with a laptop. Steve’s extraordinary teaching abilities coupled and willingness to share his talents with colleagues has made his classroom one of the most visited in the world. Not only did Steve Costa possess the confidence and courage to invent the future, he has demonstrated a remarkable focus over the past thirteen years. He has not been seduced by the latest technological fad or gimmick, but has continued to help students maximize the potential of their minds and computers by remaining committed to the hard fun of programming in Logo (MicroWorlds). Steve’s work continues to inspire me. What he and his girls have accomplished is remarkable. If there were any justice, Mr. Costa would appear on an Australian postage stamp. He is arguably one of the most important teachers in this nation’s history.
I am delighted that Steve Costa and David Loader will keynote a conference in Maine, USA this August between Alan Kay, the inventor of the personal computer, and Seymour Papert, the educator who predicted thirty-five years ago that every child would have a personal computer. Maine has built upon the foundation laid by these educational giants by passing a law requiring the provision of an iBook computer and 24/7 net access for every seventh and eighth grade student in the state.
This however is not an all-male history lesson. Many female teachers at MLC and Coombabah State Primary School in Queensland helped the world rethink the role of computers in schools. Merle Atherton, a quiet humanities teacher two years from retirement, embraced Logo and laptops with enormous enthusiasm and inspired countless colleagues to enjoy thinking about thinking. She was given an “in-school sabbatical” so she could work in classrooms alongside her colleagues.
Joan Taylor’s world-class Community Education department played an enormous role in the organization of holiday computer camps, global conferences and professional opportunities for teaching staff. The holiday computer camps provided parents with a creative child-care service and benefited the school in two important ways. The first benefit of the camp was as a “strongly suggested” prerequisite to attending the school as a new student. Four days of project-based computer use, the arts and a bit of sport provided adequate preparation for new children to succeed when they joined existing classrooms. Another benefit of the camps was that members of the teaching staff served as counselors. More “expert” teachers would lead robotics or Logo classes and less experienced teachers would apprentice. The casual nature of the camp allowed teachers to gain new knowledge and develop increased levels of consequence. Apprentices often replaced the experts in subsequent camps.
Community education also provided a venue for teachers interested in learning basic computing skills or finding out how to use computers for administrative tasks. This way the school could dedicate its professional development resources to using computers in ways that reformed education and benefited kids.
Merle and Joan are unsung heroes in the history of school computing.
I remember bringing some student projects back to the USA from MLC. When I shared them with one of America’s most accomplished computing-using teachers he remarked, “Oh, that’s what it looks like when the kids have time.” The ability to learn and work anywhere anytime is an obvious, yet important rationale for laptop use.
MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration. I spent as long as three months at a time at the school with a brief to do anything I thought would contribute to educational excellence. I worked with teachers and kids in classrooms, consulted with staff, created the holiday computer camps, built a LogoExpress system to facilitate telecommunications from home and within school and had constant access to the principal. 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, fondly remembered as pyjama parties. 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,” will no longer cut it.
Not all was perfect, even during these halcyon days. I remember needing a small bit of electronic tinkering done while at MLC and saying, “I’ll just get a girl to solder this for me.” My colleagues looked nervously around the room before someone said, “our girls don’t solder.” Concern for gender equity apparently ended at the point where students use tools, learn about electronics or perform actual service to the school community. The school musical theatre production hired professional musicians to provide accompaniment rather than utilizing talented student musicians. Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier and others write elegantly about the benefits of students assuming more responsibility for sustaining the intellectual culture and accepting responsibility for the operation of their school. We need to work harder
Soon after the pioneering efforts of MLC, two other groups of laptop schools emerged. The “marketeers” were schools more concerned with the marketing and publicity benefits of “doing laptops” than with reforming schools while nearly every other school found laptops in its future by inertia. The “marketers” and their “neighbours “ lacked the vision of the pioneer schools and found that they could differentiate themselves by embracing less empowering uses of computers and cynical assessment schemes like the International Baccalaureate. Some principals became more concerned with schmoozing hardware vendors and rising software version numbers than with educational innovation.
I am most disappointed at how little impact the laptop volcano has had on the structure of schooling. I assumed ten years ago that any educator with common sense would recognize the need for new school environments incorporating multiage, learner-centred, interdisciplinary learning. The creation of fantastic alternative learning environments at Marshmead and Clunes are evidence of a failure to bring about substantive school reform in traditional schools. The need for a school to build a new campus in order to be more learner-friendly suggests the institution’s incapacity for self-correction.
Perhaps I was naïve, but in the early nineties I had the following expectations for today’s schools.
The easy stuff
Schools would feature:
Basic productivity tool fluency
Electronic publishing of student work
Electronically-mediated parent/teacher communication
Teachers using the computer for personal productivity/school paperwork
Every child and teacher would have a personal computer
We would stop referring to computers as technology
I.T. would cease to exist as a school subject
The hard stuff
Kids would be:
All laptop owners
Writing powerful computer programs
Freely communicating online
Conducting scientific investigations with probeware
Publishing in a variety of convergent media
|The hard stuff
School leaders would be:
Using computers in personally powerful ways
Supporting the imaginative use of emerging technology
Participating in the professional development they impose on teachers
No longer using computers to quiz or test students
The really hard stuff
Principals would no longer be able to get their photo in the newspaper just for standing next to a kid and a computer
School would be learner-centered and educators would be able to articulate what that means
School leaders would spend less time making computer deals and more time collaborating with other learners
Students would be able to program and construct their own software tools
The supremacy of curriculum would be abandoned & no one would speak of delivery
School leaders would join the community of practice
Kids would collaborate with other kids and experts around the world
|The really really hard stuff
Multi-age interdisciplinary “classrooms” would be widespread
External forms of assessment would be replaced by more effective humane forms of authentic assessment
Kids would spend less time in school
Schools would stop viewing the needs of children as an impediment to the enterprise
There would be far fewer technology coordinators in schools
The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-nineties allowed schools never particularly committed to constructionism to embrace a vehicle for reinforcing the primacy of curriculum and instruction. Despite the unrivaled power of the net to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration, it has been assimilated by schools in the name of curriculum delivery and the status quo. Throw in the incredible expense of networking and the disasters caused by the unprecedented authority given to the non-educators running school technology infrastructures and the results were bound to be disappointing. It seems to many that the golden days of Australian school computing may be sadly behind us.
I invented Murray’s Law to describe the current state of school computing. Murray’s Law combine’s Moore’s Law and Murphy’s Law to state that every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processor power of today and do things twice as trivial with those computers. Things need not be, as they seem. I will share glimpses of the opportunities some of your schools may be missing during this presentation.
MLC was clearly on the right side of history. Rather than give long-winded educational rationales for portable computers I suggest that the reason your school should provide laptops is because it’s training wheels for the adults in the school. It is inevitable that every kid will have her own full-featured portable computer, although it may not look like a laptop. Embracing laptops gives your teachers a few years to prepare for that eventuality on their terms.
I am not a cyber-utopian. I want children to have the widest possible range of high-quality experiences regardless of the medium. However, computers do offer new things to know and new ways to know new things. They can be intellectual prosthetic devices that enable people to learn and express themselves in unprecedented ways. For at-risk students the computer may provide the first opportunity to experience the satisfaction of having a wonderful idea.
For girls’ schools, the computer offers rare opportunities for young women to invent their futures. Such schools will be successful only when they embrace constructionism, computers and put the needs of learners ahead of those held by curriculum designers. The women charged with the education of girls need to model the most fearless, creative and intellectually-rich use of computers if they are to inspire girls to be their very best.
Myths We Need to Overcome
#1 Girls Don’t Like Computers
Girls use computers in all sorts of ways ignored by schools. They use the technology to sustain and establish relationships via instant messaging, a technology needlessly prohibited by many schools. They publish web pages about bands and television shows they love. They share music and rip MP3s. Girls even play video games when those games are more playful and less violent.
We need to look for opportunities to build software environments and computer activities that engage girls. Many more peer-to-peer products need to be developed.
#2 Children Use Computers in School
Some of your schools have gone to great expense in order to produce glossy brochures exclaiming, “We have computers!” What may been news in 1979 is no longer newsworthy. That race has been won. What do your girls DO with those computers?
It is not your job to sort children, to decide which ones will have certain opportunities. It is your job to ensure that all children are exposed to the widest possible range of possibilities within a supportive caring environment.
Unless every girl has the opportunity to explore robotics, programming, MIDI composition, digital filmmaking, multimedia web publishing in a culture that values these activities, we cheat them of a thorough and efficient education. While computers should be transparent across all disciplines, it is outrageous how few comprehensive secondary schools offer computer science as a serious course of study. Few girls even know that this is an option as avocation or vocation. IT or ICT classes are just dressed-up computer literacy and outdated business studies courses. They lack rigor and don’t reflect the state of computing.
According to a recent study conducted by the Australian government, 44% of all children spend less than 40 minutes per week and 66% of all children spend less than one hour per week using a computer in school.2 Similar levels of inadequate access would be found in the USA as well. The major implication of this limited access is that many girls will just not use computers at all. Scarcity is a major obstacle to use. It is just not worth it for a girl to fight for an extra few minutes of computer time. 1:1 laptop computing certainly helps overcome this problem.
#3 Girls Need Different Technology
The myth that girls that girls need “pink” technology is unfounded. They need more imaginative examples of how computers and related technology might be used. Girls don’t dislike LEGO robotics and programming. It is just that their mothers and grandmothers do not buy LEGO for them. Their mothers don’t buy much software either.
Girls don’t need purple bricks. They do need project ideas that don’t result in trucks. Time and time again we have seen that girls are quite imaginative competent programmers and engineers when inspired to engage in such activities.
Girls play computer games in ways that attempt to push the boundaries of the rules – to manipulate them. Boys study the rules and try using them to get ahead, to vanquish opponents. I have seen many young girls “play” with the genre of Expanded Books by clicking on words in silly sequences in order to get the computer to say funny things. Their willingness and desire to manipulate systems should make girls the best computer users, not the most at-risk.
Since it is increasingly difficult for companies to earn a profit producing software for children, even less is created for girls. That which is created for girls insults their intelligence and merely pretties up either trivial tasks like coloring or is related to petty chores like storing addresses or diary entries.
There have been a few notable attempts to produce software for girls, but these efforts have borne little fruit. In the late 1980s, SEGA assembled all of their female engineers, artists, authors, programmers and game designers in one building in the hopes that all of this “girl power” would inspire the creation of hit videogame software for girls. It did not.
Brenda Laurel’s company, Purple Moon, was dedicated to producing software for girls and spent unprecedented funds on research into gender play patterns. The problem was that by the end of the research there was no money left to make quality software that offered compelling experiences for girls. I remember my daughter calling Purple Moon technical support to complain that her interactive adventure game crashed. She was informed that it didn’t crash, it just didn’t really have an ending. The last hope of Purple Moon was actually based on a terrific concept, a sports game for girls. The company recognized the rise in popularity in soccer among girls and had an opportunity to develop a soccer computer game for girls. Unfortunately, their soccer program told the story of getting ready for the big match, but never actually let the girls play soccer.
All is not bleak. Innovative examples of game software, such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) for the Sony PlayStation,allows players to dance on a physical pad and interact with the screen. Girls love DDR and play it until they lose weight and their dance pads wear-out. They just do so at home with friends. The arcade DDR machines are played primarily by boys who engage in a less playful, more competitive version of the activity.
Perhaps the least understood development in software for girls was the enormous late ‘90s success of Mattel’s Barbie Fashion Designer software. Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, this software title sold more copies than any other piece of “girls” software ever. The industry observed the breakthrough sales of this product and wrongly attributed its success to the fact that Barbie was on the box. This simply is not true.
There has been unsuccessful Barbie software on the market for nearly twenty years and there were other Barbie titles next to Fashion Designer. So, why did FD sell so well? I would argue that its commercial success had far less to do with Barbie than with constructionism. Barbie Fashion Designer allowed girls an opportunity to use their computers to make something cool – in this case clothes you could design, print and dress your doll in. Constructionism trumps even Barbie. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.
#4 There is More to Technology than Notebook Computers
It would be a great mistake to suggest that the latest PDA gizmo or thin-client is superior to a full-featured notebook computer. Many of these devices are intended for professionals with a specific job to do. Kids need better computers than most executives. I am quite unimpressed with those who can turn word processing and web surfing into a nine-year scope and sequence chart.
School computers may be used to do work and to learn. Work consists of writing, calculating, researching and presenting information. Learning consists of being immersed in the constructive processes with a reasonable chance of leading to the construction of a larger theory or bigger question. Microsoft Office is OK for doing work. MicroWorlds Pro is superior for learning.
“These days, computers are popularly thought of as multimedia devices, capable of incorporating and combining all previous forms of media – text, graphics, moving pictures, sound. I think this point of view leads to an underestimation of the computer’s potential. It is certainly true that a computer can incorporate and manipulate all other media, but the true power of the computer is that it is capable of manipulating not just the expression of ideas but also the ideas themselves. The amazing thing to me is not that a computer can hold the contents of all the books in a library but that it can notice relationships between the concepts described in the books – not that it can display a picture of a bird in flight or a galaxy spinning but that it can imagine and predict the consequences of the physical laws that create these wonders. The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”3
Those who make claims that schools should use such devices rather than notebooks probably have little experience using computers in creative ways and are probably more concerned with cost than benefit to children. We learn by constructing knowledge in a social context. Such construction is dependent on full-featured computers capable of making all sorts of wondrous things and sharing those things with others. Serendipity should be the goal. It is arrogant and misguided to put too much stock in what we think kids might do with technology. I embrace the wondrous inventions that enliven classrooms and stimulate even greater inquiry.
Software is another cause of confusion. Some educators are impressed by false complexity, software loaded with confusing features, tools and menus. The logic suggests that hard-to-use, expensive, or corporate software must be superior to the silly stuff developed specifically for kids. New need not mean better and pretty need not mean deep. We should endeavor to use as few software packages as possible, if of course those packages are sufficiently flexible, so that students may develop fluency. MicroWorlds use pays dividends after students have ample time to allow the software to become second nature. Jumping from software package to software package may impress adults, but it will cheat students of the benefits paid by fluency.
#5 We Have Good Role Models for Girls
One of the most effective ways to learn is through apprenticeship. Children learn a great deal, with little effort, from spending quality time engaged in authentic activities with adults. These adults inspire, teach and motivate through their example. It makes sense that if we want girls to be competent engaged computer users, then the women in their lives need to be competent engaged computer users. Most of the women known to children are teachers and yet they are among the weakest users of computers in society.
The critical shortage of teachers with demonstrable levels of computer fluency makes it difficult for girls to see the value of computing in their reflection. Carol Gilligan’s research suggests that during the early years of adolescence when girls begin to shape their identity, they also begin to see women marginalized by society. Teachers have a responsibility to be much better high-tech role models, computer clubs for girls need to be created and a public campaign must be waged to attract girls to hobbies and vocations involving computer technology.
#6 Girls Should Study Technology Criticism
Dale Spender once told a room full of educators that schools need to teach girls to criticize technology since for a number of reasons, including that women were being “routinely raped and molested online.” This hysterical proclamation was made prior to the widespread availability of the World Wide Web.
While we should be cautious to ensure the safety of all children, we do not need to raise irrational concerns. Reactionary criticism of “technology” (whatever that means) is like criticizing the weather. You will lead a rather unfulfilling life.
While it may be useful to be knowledgeable of the benefits and consequences of emerging technologies, criticism requires little intimate knowledge of the subject and renders the critic a spectator. Girls cannot afford to remain spectators in the use of the most powerful instruments of science, art and commerce ever invented. If girls wish to lead happy productive lives they will need to learn to cut code, to master the instruments of so much influence. We must move beyond hoping that our daughter will marry Bill Gates to a day in which our daughters compete successfully against him. This is a necessity if computers and software are to ever become more attractive and convivial for the majority gender.
#7 School Administrators are Qualified to Make Important Technology Decisions
School administrators like the marketing benefits associated with standing next to a group of kids and a computer, yet few have ever done anything imaginative with a computer. Unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion have been placed in the hands of technology directors who often have little knowledge of or concern for the learning needs of children. This abdication of responsibility has cost schools billions of dollars and squandered all sorts of good will and opportunity to innovate.
#8 Schools are Designed to Sort Children
American schools are being destroyed by the over-emphasis on higher-meaner-tougher standards and the quest for high-standardized test scores. California spends nearly $2 billion (US) annually on the administration of a testing scheme non-aligned to the curriculum and which can’t even seem to be scored correctly. Teachers are prohibited by law from looking at the test and receive no more than a score reporting on each child’s results yet are expected to improve practice based on this score.
Some schools spend as much as eleven weeks per year in external assessment in addition to the countless wasted hours of test preparation. Recess is being eliminated in some schools. Science, social studies and the arts have disappeared to make way for more literacy and numeracy based on a pedagogy of yelling louder more often. Students are being tortured by this nonsense and great teachers are being driven out of the profession. Schools are deemed failures and susceptible to takeover while children are kept from progressing to the next grade based on norm-reference tests requiring 50% to fail. This is the cruelest of hoaxes perpetrated on children. The publisher of California’s exam includes teacher instructions in the event that a student vomits on her test booklet.
One principal recently committed suicide as a result of her school’s test scores.
These tests serve no productive purpose and are cheating children of a joyous purposeful learning experience. Citizens of conscience must oppose this wholesale deprivation of educational excellence at every opportunity.
Australian independent schools do not have to play this game, yet they do. Complain all you want about the Department of Education, but your schools have the power to reject or at least influence, the trajectory of these accountability schemes.
This is not the case. In the years since I began working with Australian schools, local girls’ schools have not only capitulated to the VCE, but have embraced the odd little International Baccalaureate. Say what you like about American imperialism, but even we don’t have the audacity to dictate your curriculum.
The greatest tragedy is that local independent schools not only lack the courage to fight this scourge, they actively promote their scores in a most cynical attempt to gain market advantage over the competitors.
I spent some time looking at the web sites of local girls’ schools and was sickened by an animation of a cute little girl with text scrolling over her announcing this school’s test scores. Perhaps the advertisement should say things like, “Our school makes more girls cry and nauseous than any other school.” Or “our girls crushed the dumb girls down the street.” How about, “our school wasted more precious resources on cheap marketing stunts than our competition?”
I often feel like the Great Gazoo when I attend educational conferences. If you don’t remember Gazoo, he was the Martian who inexplicably visited Bedrock in the Flintstones. Terms like set tasks, packets of work, VCE scores, marks, CATs, outcomes or league tables are the words of Dickensian shopkeepers, not people who love children.
Girls deserve schools that do everything possible to create nurturing environments capable of honoring their emotional, intellectual, spiritual and creative needs.
If we believe that children are a blessing entrusted to us, then what we do should be self-evident. The choice of educational direction is not related to education party, region or grade level. We must choose between a belief in constructionism, the notion that learners are central to the learning process, or instructionism, the idea that we can improve education by teaching better. Better teachers will undoubtedly create rich environments in which students feel safe to take risks, explore their curiosity and share their knowledge. However, it is impossible to learn for anyone else no matter how hard you try. Constructionism gives agency to the learner, instructionism to the system/curriculum/teacher. Our goal should be “less us, more them.”
Schools need to do a better job of engaging all learners, listening to them and building upon their natural expertise, knowledge and talent. We need schools in which children are engaged in authentic, personally meaningful tasks in conjunction with adults who can inspire them to greater heights. Abundant computer access and high expectations for the myriad of ways in which computers may be used as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression must be the norm. Adults, particularly women, have a major responsibility as role models who develop and use sophisticated computer users. We need to think less of female students as precious Victorian-era dolls and more as competent citizens who can compute, solder and take responsibility for their own learning. They deserve no less.
1 This is not a scholarly paper. It is intended as a manifesto to accompany a keynote address. This print document cannot reproduce the examples, video clips, anecdotes, humour and passion shared during the conference. The books I love and learned from may be found at http://www.stager.org/books/. A collection of my articles about education may be found at www.stager.org.
2 Real time Computers, Change and Schooling – National sample study of the information technology skills of Australian school students
Merydth, Russel et al.
3 Hillis, Daniel. (1998) The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work.
I often remind teachers that as educators, their role is to educate everyone – children, parents, administrators, colleagues and the guy sitting next to you at the counter in a diner. Educating, like learning, must be 24/7
Every school, teacher, administrator, graduate student or kid I teach gains from the expertise I developed working with every other school, teacher, administrator or kid over the past thirty years. My experiences and the insights gained from those experiences are my most valuable commodity, one I am happy to share.
Much of my work as an educator is spent helping fellow citizens and educators recognize that even in these dark days, things need not be as they seem. This is accomplished through the sharing of anecdotes, examples of work, case studies, photographs and video of children learning in productive contexts for learning that may seem alien or impossible when compared with a school setting. This willing suspension of disbelief is dependent on compelling the case I can make. People may only choose from alternatives they have experienced or seen. A large part of my work is spent collecting the evidence necessary to change minds or creating compelling models of what is possible in a teacher’s own classroom. If one can change minds, it may be possible to change professional practice.
Recently, I led a short professional development session at a school where I showed two videos from Reggio Emilia, Italy; Utopi Quoti (Everyday Utopias) and I Tiempi Del Tempo (The Times of Time) http://www.learningmaterialswork.com/store/reggio_children_multimedia.html
Teachers at the school were able to watch day-in-the-life videos of the extraordinary inquiry-based learner centered environments of Reggio Emilia’s municipal preschools, ask questions and discuss how what they observed might inform or transform their practice in a K-8 setting half a world away. The generosity of the educators, students and parents of Reggio Emilia make such conversations possible, since their videos share models of teaching and learning that may be foreign to us or invisible otherwise.
I have enjoyed some incredibly exciting experiences as an educator this year that remind me of why I teach and of the power computers can play in the construction of knowledge. This feeling of success is confronted by the sense that members of the edtech/ICT community have no idea what I do. I have low expectations for policy-makers and the media, but the edtech/ICT community should know better, right? They should join me in advocating powerful ideas and classroom revolution. Instead, too many seem more concerned with shopping, composing clever platitudes and congratulating each other via social media. It seems that the longer computers are in schools the fewer ideas there are for using them. When my colleagues whine and complain that change isn’t possible, I know in my soul they are wrong.They too could be classroom badasses, if only I could explain what I do and they believed what kids do with me. This inability to have a wider impact makes me feel like such a failure.
Colleagues and friends like to learn about the work I do in classrooms around the world. Sometimes, I even blog about my experiences. Occasionally, I share materials I created for classroom use. Such sharing requires extra work and rarely captures the enthusiasm, joy, social interactions, interventions, epiphanies, powerful ideas or tacit gestures so critical to powerful learning experiences. Perhaps it is so difficult for others to imagine young children programming computers, learning without coercion or being _____ (mathematicians, scientists, engineers, authors, filmmakers, artists, composers…) because they have never seen it with their own eyes.
If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, video may be worth a bazillion.
Oh, how I wish you could have seen the 3rd grade class I taught late last week. The kids were programming in Turtle Art, a vision of Logo focused on creating beautiful images resulting from formal mathematical processes. I drew three challenges on the board and then groups of kids, who had used the software a few times before, set off to work collaboratively in figuring out mathematical ways to “teach the turtle” to reproduce the images I shared. I could tell you how the kids demonstrated an understanding of linear measurement, angle, integers, iteration, randomness, optical illusions, naming, procedurality and debugging strategies. However, if video had captured the session, you might have seen the kid who spends half the day getting a drink of water demonstrating impressive mathematical reasoning. You might have seen kids shrieking with joy during a “math” lesson, others high-fiving one another as they conquered each challenge and kids setting more complex challenges for themselves based on their success. You may have also noticed how the classroom teacher joined his students in problem solving – perhaps for the first time, but discovering the role the computer can play in education. Video might have captured how I choreographed the activity with less than a minute of instruction followed by 45 minutes of learner construction.
Alas, there is no such video to share.
I wish you could have seen what happened when I challenged a class of 5th graders to write a computer program in MicroWorlds that would allow the user to enter a fraction and have the computer draw that fraction as slices of a circle. The problem was so challenging that I offered to buy lunch for the first kid or group of kids to write a successful program. The kids worked for days on the one problem.
If I had video, you would have seen students confront variables for the first time by using them. They also employed algebraic reasoning, turtle geometry, angle, radius and speaking mathematically to their collaborators. I wish I could share how I asked the right question at the precise moment required to help a kid understand the problem at hand, how I refused to answer some questions or give too much information and deprive kids of constructing knowledge.
I wish you could have seen how excited the three little girls were when their program performed reliably. I wish you could have seen the non-winners who continued working on their programs regardless of the contest being over. I wish you could have seen the girls showing their program to their teacher and improving it based on aesthetic suggestions. I sure wish I could share a photograph of the 11 year-old female mathematicians arm-in-arm with #1 written on each of their arms held high.
Why should you trust me without evidence? I could post the program they wrote, but it might make as much sense as Swahili to some of you, while others will ask if the students were “gifted.”
My fourth graders are using Pico Crickets as their robotics construction kit. They are currently figuring out ways to bring stuffed animals to life with locomotion, sound, lights and senses. If you could see the class you would immediately appreciate the wide range of expertise and learning styles represented. Some kids have never built anything or played with LEGO while others have lots of experience. There are children very close to programming and reanimating their animal while others are busy building the tallest LEGO tower, giving a stuffed monkey a Mohawk haircut or shaving a teddy bear. Each student is working at their own level in their own way
I wish you could have seen the workshop I whipped together with little notice for seventy high school teachers in an economically challenged region. I wish you could have shared their joy and laughter while engaged in recreating old-time radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 40s. Along the way, they learned to record, edit and enhance digital audio without a bit of instruction. They fanned out in teams across their campus in order to find quiet places to record and discovered a powerful literacy activity they could use with students the next day. They also learned that tech skills could be learned casually in the context of a rich project.
Many schools have an uneasy relationship with photography, video and student identity. Some schools allow photography without the use of student names or the school identified. Others use initials or pseudonyms to indicate student identities. Some schools have prohibitions on publication of photos online. Some schools have no prohibitions whatsoever. Occasionally, I encounter schools that do not allow photography of any sort.
None of this is new to me. The tension over photography often mirrors fears of the Internet My doctoral research was with incarcerated teenagers and required me to take photographs without student faces being visible. I got pretty good at that, but such carefully designed “shots” makes it impossible to show the life of the classroom.
If schools, parents and teachers would embrace photography and video, school would be better for children. I truly believe that.
Here are but a few arguments for classroom photography.
Documents and tells learning stories
Photography and videography may be used to capture learning stories that make thinking visible to teachers, invite other learners to contribute to another student’s thinking, inspire peers to build upon the knowledge or accomplishments of classmates and preserves the intellectual life of the school.
Communicates with parents
Photography and videography provide an authentic way to demonstrate what students know and do for parents.
Honors student work and accomplishments
The publication or even casual sharing of student project-work via media honors their accomplishments without badges, grades or other coercive gimmicks. Citizens are most likely to support schools that provide evidence of innovation.
Beautifies the school
Photos and video displays of students actively learning sets a tone for a school and reminds inhabitants of what matters.
Shares exemplary practices with fellow educators
Colleagues may learn what’s possible and new pedagogical practices if they are able to visit other classrooms vicariously. A fancy formal term for this is called “lesson study.”
Parents should be educated that putting a student’s photo or poem on the Web will not result in alien abduction. They should also be reminded that advocating for a newspaper photo of their kid kicking a goal is of less value than sharing classroom practice as a means to inspire and improve education in their school and beyond.
Photos are useful
In addition to their educational function as documentation that makes thinking visible for teachers planning learner-centered interventions, photos may be used for public relations and school publications.
It’s nice to share
Imagine a place where a diverse population learns more in a few days than they otherwise would in years. Imagine a space where tinkering is encouraged and personally meaningful project development is supported by an expert faculty. Imagine a learning environment filled with books, art supplies, robotics materials, electronics, computers, cameras, musical instruments and creativity software. Imagine learners having the luxury of time required to realize their objectives and opportunities to work with some of the world’s most creative thinkers. Imagine learners making films, programming computers, building simulations, constructing robots, sewing wearable computers, creating animations and designing video games. Imagine a once-in-a-lifetime field trip to a see the future.
Now, imagine that these learners are professional teachers. This is not a fantasy. It’s called Constructing Modern Knowledge, a summer institute for educators celebrating its fifth anniversary this July 9-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Educators from China, Costa Rica and Australia join Americans from across the USA at next month’s event.
Constructing Modern Knowledge is built upon the simple proposition that you cannot adequately teach in the 21st Century, if you have not learned in this Century with the modern materials and technology that amplify human potential. How is a teacher or school administrator supposed to resource a classroom or teach in a way that takes advantage of the rich opportunities beyond the classroom walls without awareness and personal knowledge of what it feels like to learn with the tools of their age? Constructing Modern Knowledge participants are encouraged to take off their teacher hat and become reacquainted with their learner hat.
Even the most creative educators need a spa day for their mind where their passion, curiosity and ambition can be reignited. Constructing Modern Knowledge not only creates a fantastic laboratory for tinkering, inventing and creating, but it offers opportunities for educators to learn with their heroes. Constructing Modern Knowledge is a chance for educators to reinvent themselves.
In addition to an amazing faculty of gifted educators and pioneers, Constructing Modern Knowledge features remarkable guest speakers who spend time learning with and mentoring participants.
This year’s guest speakers include:
- Casey Neistat - award-winning DIY filmmaker with millions of Web views and star of his own HBO series, The Neistat Brothers.
- Mark Frauenfelder – Editor-in-Chief of Make Magazine, Founder of BoingBoing.net and author of Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. Frauenfelder is at the forefront of the maker movement sweeping the globe.
- Dr. Leah Beuchley – MIT Media Lab professor and Lilypad Arudino (wearable computing construction kits) inventor
- Dr. Lilian Katz – Veteran educational researcher, early childhood specialist and proponent of “the project approach” to learning
- Super Awesome Sylvia – Ten year-old Web phenom, maker, tinkerer, learner, teacher and role model
Our “field trip” to Boston will begin with a reception at the world-famous MIT Media Lab, where much of the future is being invented.
On top of all that, Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the world’s greatest living scientists, inventors and provocateurs will lead his fifth annual “fireside chat.” This year, Dr. Minsky will also be a participant in Constructing Modern Knowledge!
According to Wikipedia…
Participants will have the opportunity to work on projects with or alongside of Marvin Minsky and our other distinguished guests! Previous CMK speakers have included Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, Derrick Pitts, Lella Gandini, James Loewen and Mitchel Resnick.
Constructing Modern Knowledge is by its very nature an intimate professional learning event, but registration is still possible. Parents and citizens can certainly send their favorite teacher to “camp” this summer too. They’ll come back to school with a new bag of tricks and inspired to help students invent their futures.
Check out the learning stories from last year’s institute, teacher resources and videos at This is What Learning Looks Like!
On October 5, 2011, I had the privilege of addressing leading education policy-makers and educators in Seoul, South Korea as a guest of the Korea Education Research & Information Service.
I presented in a “classroom of the future” complete with horrific card readers with True/False-type buttons (response systems) affixed to wooden desks. Given the orthodoxy associated with the staid nature of the Korean education system, I decided to go all-in and offer learner-centered progressive alternatives.
I wish they had included the Q&A period following my talk. I hope to get a copy in the future and will share it if I do.
Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012 celebrates computing, creativity and children by adding blog, YouTube and MakerFaire sensation, Super Awesome Sylvia as a guest speaker and faculty member at CMK 2012, July 9-12, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Sylvia’s enthusiasm, curiosity, ingenuity and passion have inspired hundreds of thousands of children and adults to tinker with cutting-edge technology. Her videos share wisdom and whimsical ideas for projects. This pint-sized pedagogue also teachers viewers about art, science, engineering and technology with remarkable clarity.
It will be super awesome to have Super Awesome Sylvia as a co-learner at CMK 2012! I can’t wait to see what we make together!
- Super Awesome Sylvia’s web site
- Gary Stager’s article, Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling
- Constructing Modern Knowledge’s amazing guest speakers and faculty
- One of Sylvia’s recent instructional videos (below)
As you are probably aware, I have been working in schools with a laptop per child since I led professional development at the world’s first laptop schools back in 1990. Recently, I helped an international school launch 1:1 computing from first through eighth grade.
I believe that less is more, but since software was purchased at once, I recommended the following assortment of constructive creative software for student use across the curriculum.
MicroWorlds EX Robotics
Curriculum areas: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (S.T.E.M.), Language Arts, Social Studies, Computer Science, Art
MicroWorlds EX is a multimedia version of the Logo programming language. It is designed to have “no threshold and no ceiling” and to be used to create personally meaningful projects and solve problems. MicroWorlds may be used across the curriculum to bring stories to life through art, text, sound and animation; concretize formal mathematical thinking; and creative interactive programs, including video games. MicroWorlds does not publish as nicely on the Web as Scratch, but it holds much more power and functionality as a programming language.
MicroWorlds is a general purpose programming environment that grows with the learner and offers a level of challenge regardless of expertise. Computational thinking and problem solving skills are developed while expressing even artistic ideas with mathematical language.
MicroWorlds EX is based on the work of Seymour Papert, the “father of educational computing,” and colleague of Jean Piaget. In the mid-1960s, Papert began writing about every child having a personal computer. MicroWorlds EX is a software embodiment of his theory of “constructionism.”
MicroWorlds EX contains built-in Help, Vocabulary Reference, Tutorials, Annotated Samples & Techniques.
Curriculum areas: Language Arts, Social Studies, Art
Pixie is a graphics and image manipulation program designed for young children. It contains lots of templates and tools to inspire storytelling and visual creativity. Photos and other graphic files may be imported into Pixie for all sorts of manipulation.
The products of Pixie may be exported in a variety of formats for insertion into other programs, including MicroWorlds, ImageBlender, Animation-ish, Pages, Keynote and Comic Life. It is also integrated with the safe and free image library by and for children, Pics4Learning. Pixie is intended for K-2 students at the school.
Curriculum areas: Language Arts, Social Studies, Art
ImageBlender is a more grown-up graphics and image manipulation program than Pixie, but carefully designed for children (and their teachers). You might think of it as PhotoShop for kids. ImageBlender contains lots of templates and tools to inspire storytelling and visual creativity. Photos and other graphic files may be imported into ImageBlender for all sorts of manipulation.
The products of ImageBlender may be exported in a variety of formats for insertion into other programs, including MicroWorlds, ImageBlender, Animation-ish, Pages, Keynote and Comic Life. It is also integrated with the safe and free image library by and for children, Pics4Learning. Pixie should be used by students from grades 3 and up.
ImageBlender 3 Users Guide
Tech4Learning’s Online Teacher Community – Connect (You should join!)
The Creative Educator Magazine (free)
Pics4Learning free photo library for education
Curriculum areas: Language Arts, Social Studies, Art, Mathematics, Science
Animation-ish is a three-level tutorial based animation program that is deceptively easy to use and incredibly powerful. It was created by best-selling children’s author and illustrator, Peter Reynolds (The Dot, Ish, The North Star, Judy Moody, Stink…).
Be sure to take advantage of the online tutorials and built-in video inspiration!
Complex ideas from across the curriculum and engaging stories may be created with a remarkbale clarity and level of sophistication. Animation-ish, like Pixie and ImageBlender work great with the Wacom drawing tablets.
Animation-ish exports its animations in Flash, QuickTime and other formats that may be published on the web or imported into most of the authoring programs being used by teachers and students.
Curriculum areas: Language Arts & Social Studies
Comic Life allows you to design and print stories and newsletters in the form of comic books or graphic novels. Photos and other static graphics may be imported. This is a great vehicle for supporting the writing process.
Curriculum areas: Social Studies, Mathematics
InspireData is a tool for visualizing data. It’s a hybrid spreadsheet, database and survey tool that allows learners to interrogate data and test hypotheses. It may be used to conduct surveys on one computer or online. Students can then download that data or any tab/comma-delimited file found on the Web for use within InspireData.
InspireData allows for multiple visual representations of data – Venn diagrams, histograms, pie charts, scatter plots and more. Most importantly, its flexibility and ease-of-use allows students to make sense of when one representation would be more suitable than another. InspireData contains mathematical tools for performing calculations and the ability to assemble views of the data for a visual presentation.
The program comes with a large collection of interdisciplinary activities which may stand alone or inspire other inquiry.
Curriculum areas: S.T.E.M.
PicoBlocks is a visual form of the Logo programming language, created by the same person responsible for MicroWorlds EX Robotics, but limited to the control of the Pico Cricket robotics system. The block programming screen metaphor is similar to the way in which LEGO and the Cricket elements are assembled. This is intended for grades 3 and up at the school and may be used to bring a variety of curricular topics to life.
PicoCrickets are based on research from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. Here are some resources for learning more about the ideas underlying PicoCrickets.
Curriculum areas: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (S.T.E.M.), Language Arts, Social Studies, Computer Science, Art
MicroWorlds Jr. is a version of MicroWorlds EX, with fully-compatible syntax, but designed for younger children with lower literacy levels than required by MicroWorlds EX.
The reading skills of this school’s students makes this less of an issue, but children without the the problem-solving abilities of their more advanced classmates might do well to have the option of working in MicroWorlds Jr. At younger ages the same projects may be adjusted for use of either environment.
Curriculum areas: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (S.T.E.M.), Language Arts, Social Studies, Computer Science, Art
Designed at the MIT Media Lab, Scratch is literally a cousin of MicroWorlds designed by many of the same people. It’s a graphical version of Logo intended for storytelling and video games developed for publication on the World Wide Web. The software is free and does several things brilliantly. However, it lacks the range of possibilities and power afforded by MicroWorlds EX.
The Scratch web site is a rich place for children to share their projects and collaborate with others. Scratch programs may be created in countless languages, yet worked on locally due to ingenius translation abilities within the software.
Scratch is used to program and control the WeDo robotics materials at the lower primary levels. When the WeDo interface is plugged into the laptop, extra programming blocks appear within Scratch.
Curriculum areas: All
Pages is Apple’s very fine word processing and desktop publishing program that should be the basis for all written work at the school. It can also export its files in Microsoft Word and PDF formats.
The best thing about Pages are the built-in templates that turn anyone into a polished graphic designer. The Web is full of free and low-cost additional templates if you wish to expand your output options.
Curriculum areas: All
Keynote is Apple’s visual presentation program filled with more powerful features and simpler functionality than PowerPoint. Keynote includes presenter notes, the ability to record narrration timed to slides, animation, powerful graphic tools and the ability to export in PowerPoint, QuickTime and PDF formats for use in other programs.
You may search the Web for other Keynote templates – free and low-cost.
Curriculum areas: All
Make and edit video for interdisciplinary projects and for sharing information in specific subjects. Exports for publsihing on the Web, CD, DVD and YouTube.
Curriculum areas: Language Arts, Music
GarageBand is an incredibly powerful tool for recording audio, dubbing audio tracks on movies and loop-based music composition. It may be used anytime audio helps tell a story or set the mood.
Curriculum areas: All
iPhoto is the personal image library built into the Mac. It’s where teachers and students should store and touch-up their photographs. However, you’re not just limited to digital photographs. Any image file may be imported or dragged and dropped into iMovie for later retrieval. Garageband, iMovie, Keynote and Pages use this image library for dragging and dropping your images into other multimedia uathoring programs.
iPhoto may also be used to create photo books, picture books, calendars, greeting cards or order professional-quality prints.
For more than basic photo touch-ups, ImageBlender should be used.
Curriculum areas: Mathematics, Social Studies
Numbers is Apple’s spreadsheet for performing calculations and making mathematical forecasts. Spreadsheets are an incredibly powerful tool across the curriculum.
Search the Web for classroom spreadsheet projects or activities. Anything written for Excel or Numbers will work fine. Excel is MicroSoft’s spreadsheet. Numbers exports in Excel format and opens Excel files with ease.
- Gary Stager’s robotics resource web page – filled with resources for planning and teaching with robotics materials across the curriculum
- Gary Stager’s laptop/1:1 web page- filled with resources for planning and teaching with laptops across the curriculum
- Comprehensive collection of recommended books and resources for creative educators
- Gary Stager’s wildly entertaining and informative blog
- Gary Stager’s biography
- Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute web site
- The Constructivist Consortium web site
- Gary Stager on Twitter
In addition to the keynote addresses, presentation topics and workshops offered here, I have created new hands-on minds-on workshops for the coming school year.
Invent to Learn
Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving where computing meets tinkering and performance. A secret yet timeless curricular theme will be unveiled Iron Chef-style. Participants will work with a variety of software, hardware and found materials in four domains (virtual, tactile, audio and video) to express the theme in a personal fashion. The day’s intensity will lead to impressive gains in skill development and a greater understanding of effective project-based learning. Computer programming, filmmaking, animation, audio production, robotics and engineering are all on the menu. Bring a laptop and camera or video camera We’ll supply the rest. Invention is the mother of learning!
Electrifying Children’s Mathematics
There may be no greater gap between a discipline and the teaching done in its name than when the beauty, power and mystery of mathematics becomes math instruction. One can only begin to address the systemic challenges of math education by understanding the nature of mathematics. Nearly 100 years of efforts to increase achievement with unchanged curricular content continues to fail spectacularly; yet, we do not change course. This workshops moves beyond the goal of making math instruction engaging to providing educators with authentic mathematical thinking experiences. Such experiences acknowledge the role computers play in mathematics and society’s increasing demand for computational thinking. Project-based approaches with mathematics at the center of the activity will be explored. Traditional concepts such as numeracy, geometry, probability and graphing will be investigated in addition to exciting new branches of mathematics rarely found in the primary grades.
This workshop is designed for teachers of grades 3-8. It may also be offered as an ongoing course with a greater emphasis on curriculum development and action research.
How to Teach with Computers
This hands-on minds-on workshop helps expand your vision of how computers may be used in knowledge construction while exploring pedagogical strategies for creating rich computing experiences that amplify the potential of each learner. Mini activities model sound project-based learning principles and connect various disciplines across multiple grade levels.
Modern schools face several challenges; among them are the questions at the heart of this workshop. Once teachers are finally convinced to use computers as instruments for learning, do they have creative project ideas and do they possess the pedagogical skills necessary for success?
This minds-on hands-on workshop will feature mini-projects designed to nurture sophisticated inquiry, computational thinking and artistic expression across disciplines and grade levels. The presenter will also discuss pedagogical strategies for using computers in an effective fashion as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. These strategies illuminate principles of sound project-based learning and honor the individual learning styles, talents, curiosity and intensity of each student.
Dr. Gary Stager has thirty years of experience helping educators maximize the potential of computers and create productive contexts for learning on six continents. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, created one of the first online Masters degree programs and was recently recognized by Tech & Learning Magazine as one of today’s 30 most influential educators.
Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 ended just a few days ago and I’m exhausted, but in the words of David Letterman, “It’s a good kind of tired.” CMK 2011 stands as one of the highlights of my career. Not only was I able to create a productive learning environment for approximately 90 educators from Australia to Costa Rica, but they were able to interact with brilliant experts, authors and inventors, including Jonathan Kozol, Derrick Pitts, Lella Gandini, Mitchel Resnick, Brian Silverman, Cynthia Solomon and Marvin Minsky. Some of us toured the wondrous MIT Museum and explored the Boston Freedom Trail. We socialized at a minor league baseball game, over meals and at the MIT Media Lab.
Supported by an amazing faculty, CMK 2011 participants engaged in dozens of hands-on/minds-on projects and expanded their vision of how computers can transform learning. (Specific examples will be shared at constructingmodernknowledge.com in the coming days.)
During the flurry of CMK 2011 activity, I stole away a few minutes to create a presentation intended to wrap-up the four-day institute. While thinking about the lessons of CMK 2011, several words beginning with the letter “C.” In the spirit of the great philosopher Mick Jagger who once said, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” I ended up with an absurd number of C-words reflecting the lessons of Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 in no particular order.
Since knowledge is a consequence of experience, constructing things creates rich contexts for learning..
CMK 2011 participants collaborated with colleagues and new friends met at the institute when such interdependence is mutually beneficial. Participants also sat shared expertise and worked with an expert faculty.
Human development progresses from concrete to abstract. Piaget and Papert suggest that every time you learn something new, you return to a level of concreteness. Engineering is a manifestation of concrete experience, yet the only people who get to study engineering are the ones who successfully navigated twelve to fourteen years of abstraction (school math and science). If learners start with engineering projects, a great deal of formal knowledge will be constructed. This was demonstrated numerous times throughout CMK 2011.
CMK 2011 participants demonstrated courage in myriad ways. They chose to spend four days of their summer at Constructing Modern Knowledge. They jumped in and began working on open-ended projects. They asked for help. They shared their insecurities and triumphs. They helped themselves to unauthorized tours of the MIT Media Lab. They engaged courageously in conversation with brilliant people.
Some might think that it’s crazy to spend four or five days of summer vacation in Manchester, NH. Others might accuse CMK 2011 participant of being crazy for believing that they can change the educational experiences of their students. Surely, some initial project ideas seemed crazy. Connecting LEGO to a bicycle in order to charge an iPhone while peddling to work seemed crazy – until it worked.
CMK 2011 projects displayed a great deal of complexity. All sorts of skills and knowledge were required, even if that knowledge and skill needed to be developed within the context of the project.
Brian Silverman told us that the MIT approach is to give students a really hard project challenge and assume that they can do it. At CMK 2011, participants set really hard challenges for themselves and in most cases succeeded.
Competence is a related principal to challenge. The educators of Reggio Emilia, Italy believe that learners are competent. Constructing Modern Knowledge was designed to demonstrate the competence of each learner and their ability to learn without being taught.
Educators cared enough about themselves and their personal growth to attend CMK 2011. They cared about the work they did and for each other. Great care was taken in the process of creating personally meaningful projects.
CMK 2011 participants worked when, where and how they felt most comfortable, even when they ventured outside of their “comfort zone.” The hallway, picnic tables, parking garage, floor and lobby were all part of the learning environment.
Timeless craft traditions were honored through storytelling, mixed media, historical connections, a quest for beauty and collaboration during the project development process. Sewing and photography took their rightful place alongside programming, animation and robotics. The marriage of the analog and digital contribute to the continuum of craft.
You never know what will inspire a learner. That’s why the CMK 2011 learning environment was filled with toys, books, art supplies, software, electronics, tools and assorted tchotchkes. A wooden automata kit became a talking Thomas Edison puppet and crappy plastic aliens inspired a robotics project.
Since curiosity is a hallmark of good project-based learning, the number and variety of projects in-progress at CMK 2011 sated the curiosity of learners.
Kids are the reason we are all educators. CMK 2011 participants honored the epistemological pluralism of their students by spending four days learning for themselves in the childlike fashion one hopes they nurture in their own students.
CMK 2011 participants worked with cutting-edge software and emerging technologies, such wearable computing via Lilypad Arduino. They also engaged in discussions of cutting-edge educational issues with Jonathan Kozol, Lella Gandini, Derrick Pitts and Mitchel Resnick. Constructing Modern Knowledge demonstrates the educators’ competence and capacity for growth. We also demonstrated how learning need not follow a sequential curricular hierarchy created by others. Learners of all ages may work on the cutting-edge as a productive relevant context for learning all sorts of other things.
Learning at Constructing Modern Knowledge exemplified the importance of connections between disciplines, low and high-tech materials, historic eras, strategies, learners and experts. The learning environment supports guest speaker Marvin Minsky’s adage, “You don’t really understand something until you understand it in more than one way.”
A community of practice forms at Constructing Modern Knowledge around shared interests and actions. Bringing educators together to learn from and with experts enriches that community.
Schools have lots of computers, but very little computing. A few years ago, CMK guest speaker Brian Silverman said. “Computing is the game changer.” Computing allows one to solve problems, make things and express oneself in ways impossible without computation.
There were many moments at Constructing Modern Knowledge that reminded me of when Seymour Papert was asked, “Do you really mean to suggest that every child should have a personal computer?” Papert would respond, “No, every child should have at least two computers.”
Throughout CMK 2011, participants were spontaneously using iPads as the way they were intended; as accessories for their laptops.
Constructing Modern Knowledge was created to model Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism. You can learn more about constructionism here.
Ooey-gooey gourmet cupcakes were the refreshment of choice for our reception at the MIT Media Lab. They honored Professor Resnick and his Lifelong Kindergarten Group and celebrated the childlike abandon with which CMK 2011 learners worked throughout the institute.
At the end of the event, the leftover cupcakes were placed under the “foodcam,” an ingenious Media Lab invention that automatically emails a photograph of free food with a “come and get it” message to everyone at the lab!
At the start of Constructing Modern Knowledge, I ask participants to “take off their teacher hats and put on their learner hats.” This seeming act of selfishness enriches the learning experience in remarkable ways.
Several teachers from The Willows Community School in Los Angeles (the third year a large team from their school has attended CMK) designed to build a concrete manifestation of this metaphor by using the Lilypad Arduino wearable electronic components to make a teacher that may be switched from teacher to learner to a combination of both!
There is one obvious C-word I left off of my list mistakenly – CHOICE. Learners at CMK 2011 had complete freedom to choose, what, how and when they would learn. Participants selected projects in a coercive-free environment unimpeded by curriculum.
Don’t take my word for it, read the great CMK 2011 blog posts written by participants!
From Kate Tabor
- Starting With a Blank Page
- Day 3 at CMK11: Ways of Knowing
- Day 2: CMK 2011 – Inspiration and Renewed Enthusiasm
- Looking for the Colonel
- Best Advice of the Day
Adam Provost’s blog post about CMK 2011