In First Chance to Make a Learning Impression, my friend Will Richardson shares his disappointment with the “back-to-school” packets he just received in anticipation of his children’s next school year. Will explains how the focus of the packet is on everything but learning.
Just for fun, I set out to see how long it would take to find the word “learning” somewhere in the mix. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third…by the time I finally found the first instance I had stopped counting. It was a buried line in a letter from the principal explaining that due to NCLB, every teacher has to be “highly qualified” and that “every teacher continues life-long learning through professional development activities.”
Will’s 2013 article reminded me of a similar article I wrote for District Administration Magazine way back in 2004. I recommend reading Will’s article as well.
The back-to-school commercials each summer fill me with dreadful flashbacks of my own days as a student. As a parent, the end of summer is signaled by a last-minute desire to squeeze in a bit more family fun and the arrival of a large ominous envelope from the local high school. The package contains countless documents commanding our immediate attention and signatures in triplicate.
This enormous collection of murdered trees contains countless rules, regulations and a list of innumerable sanctions the school intends to visit upon my child. As if this draconian catalogue of crimes and subsequent punishments were not bad enough, I am then expected to sign the documents, implying that I agree with them.
This recent and disturbing phenomenon leaves me with many unanswered questions. What if I don’t sign the forms? When did the local public school become a gulag? Was there a public meeting in The Hague at which these rules and sanctions were compiled and democratically agreed to? Is this the best way to start a fresh school year? Can I have Johnnie Cochran look over the documents before I affix my signature?
If the school expects parents to sign-off on a list of ways school discipline may be enforced, perhaps I can circulate a list of expectations for how I expect the school to educate my child. It only seems fair.
So here’s my list, in no particular order:
- School to home communications will be proofread and spell-checked
- Teachers will take reasonable steps to maintain expertise in their subject area
- Homework will be purposeful and only assigned when necessary to reinforce a concept, engage in a long-term project or as the result of work not completed in-class
- Children will be encouraged to play
- Classroom libraries will be stocked with interesting books
- Students will not be treated as numbers
- Teachers will discuss current events with their students
- Students will be encouraged to talk about books they read, not just create mobiles and book reports
- School personnel will publish their e-mail addresses and respond to e-mail promptly
- The school district Web site will be updated more often than every five years
- Class sizes will be 20 or lower
- Teachers will attend at least one professional learning event outside of the school district per year
- Teachers will not talk down to children
- Punishment will be viewed as a last resort
- The school will offer rich visual and performing arts opportunities for all students
- Curriculum will endeavor to remain relevant and connected to the world
- Classroom rules will be developed democratically
- There will be formal and informal opportunities for parents to interact with teachers
- The principal will be accessible to students and parents
- Administrators will make an effort to interact with students in positive contexts
- Student diversity will be valued and celebrated
- Cooperation will be valued over competition
- The school will refrain from sorting, tracking, streaming and labeling children
- Students will play a large role in all aspects of the life of the school;
- Authentic forms of assessment will be used
- A modern functioning computer will be available whenever a child needs one
- Teachers will embrace opportunities to learn with and from students
- The school will take teacher input seriously
- Teachers will feel supported and encouraged to take risks
- Effective models of professional development will be designed and include the participation of the principal
- Equal attention and resources will be applied to the arts as to sports
Laptops and Learning
Can laptop computers put the “C” (for constructionism) in Learning?
Published in the October 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator
© 1998 – Gary S. Stager
“…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” - Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon (1971)
In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia embarked on a still unparalleled learning adventure. Eighteen years after Solomon and Papert’s prediction this school made a commitment to personal computing and constructionism. The unifying principle was that every child in the school (from grades 5-12) would own a personal laptop computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum with a belief that their ideas and work were being stored and manipulated on their own personal computer. Ownership of the laptop computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. The personal computer is a vehicle for building something tangible outside of your head – one of the tenets of constructionism. By 1994, 2,000 MLC teachers and students had a personal laptop computer. This school, like most serious workplaces now has a computer ration of more than one computer per worker (teacher & student). Today, approximately 50,000 Australian school children have their own laptop. More and more American schools are embracing laptops as well.
Personal Computing – Personal Learning
Until recently, the notion of the PC and personal computing has escaped schools. Computer labs, special furniture and computer literacy curricula have been designed to make efficient use of scarce public resources. The potential benefits of using a word processor to write, edit and publish are rarely realized when access to the computer is limited and artificially scheduled. Laptops provide a personal space for creating, exploring, and collecting one’s own ideas, work, and knowledge in a more fluid manner. Pioneering schools like MLC adopted laptops for the following reasons:
The laptop is flexible, portable, personal and powerful
Students and teachers may use the computer whenever and wherever they need to. The laptop is a personal laboratory for intellectual exploration and creative expression. Learning extends beyond the walls and hours of the school.
The laptop helps to professionalize teachers
Teachers equipped with professional tools view themselves more professionally. Computers are much more likely to be integrated into classroom practice when every student has one.
Provocative models of learning will emerge
Teachers need to be reacquainted with the art of learning before they are able to create rich supportive learning environments for their students. The computer allows different ways of thinking, knowing and expressing ones own ideas to emerge. The continuous collection of learning stories serves as a catalyst for rethinking the nature of teaching and learning.
Gets schools out of the computer business
Laptops are a cost-effective alternative to building computer labs, buying special furniture and installing costly wiring. Students keep laptops for an average of three years, a turnover rate rarely achieved by schools. Built-in modems provide students with net access outside of school. The school can focus resources on projection devices, high-quality peripherals and professional development.
Since my work with the world’s first two “laptop schools” in 1990, I’ve helped dozens of similar schools (public and private) around the world make sense of teaching and learning in environments with ubiquitous computing. My own experience and research by others has observed the following outcomes for students and teachers.
- Students take enormous pride in their work.
- Individual and group creativity flourishes.
- Multiple intelligences and ways of knowing are in ample evidence.
- Connections between subject areas become routine.
- Learning is more social.
- Work is more authentic, personal & often transcends the assignment.
- Social interactions tend to me more work-related.
- Students become more naturally collaborative and less competitive.
- Students develop complex cooperative learning strategies.
- Kids gain benefit from learning alongside of teachers.
- Learning does not end when the bell rings or even when the assignment is due.
- The school’s commitment to laptops convinces teachers that computers are not a fad. Every teacher is responsible for use.
- Teachers reacquaint themselves with the joy and challenge of learning something new.
- Teachers experience new ways of thinking, learning and expressing one’s knowledge.
- Teachers become more collaborative with colleagues and students.
- Authentic opportunities to learn with/from students emerge.
- Sense of professionalism and self-esteem are elevated.
- Thoughtful discussions about the nature of learning and the purpose of school become routine and sometimes passionate.
- Teachers have ability to collaborate with teachers around the world.
- New scheduling, curriculum and assessment structures emerge.
“I believe that every American child ought to be living in the 21st century… This is why I like laptops – you can take them home. I m not very impressed with computers that schools have chained to desks. I m very impressed when kids have their own computers because they are liberated from a failed bureaucracy …
You can’t do any single thing and solve the problem. You have to change the incentives; you’ve got to restructure the interface between human beings. If you start redesigning a learning system rather than an educational bureaucracy, if you have incentives for kids to learn, and if you have 24-hour-a-day, 7-day a week free standing opportunities for learning, you’re going to make a bigger breakthrough than the current bureaucracy. The current bureaucracy is a dying institution.” – U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (Wired Magazine, August 1995)
When Seymour Papert and Newt Gingrich are on the same side of an issue, it is hard to imagine an opposing view. The fact that computers are smaller, cheaper and more powerful has had a tremendous impact on society. Soon that impact will be realized by schools. Laptop schools are clearly on the right side of history and will benefit from the experience of being ahead of trend.
Much has been said recently about the virtues of anytime anywhere learning. Laptops certainly can deliver on that promise. Integrated productivity packages may be used to write, manipulate data and publish across the curriculum. However, the power of personal computing as a potential force for learning and as a catalyst for school reform transcends the traditional view of using computers to “do work.” I encourage school leaders considering an investment in laptops to dream big dreams and conceive of ways that universal computing can help realize new opportunities for intellectual development and creative expression.
Yes siree folks, on Saturday April 27th, I will be premiering my new one-man show, “Less Us, More Them,” as a newly ordained hipster at TEDxNYED in Brooklyn, NY. (I hear they grow trees there now)
Why am I a hypocrite? Need you ask?
I dislike TED. It’s the playground of overprivileged rich kids sharing a distasteful libertarian philosophy that would make Ayn Rand say, “Wow, you boys are immature.” TED celebrates and accentuates the short attention span of our culture. It confers expertise and celebrity on anyone who can rhyme, speak quickly or has a YouTube video.
Thanks to TED, we can now watch three self-important and self-proclaimed experts in the span of one Kardashians episode!
Disclaimer: Before I say anymore mean things about TED, I must state that the fine women and men who organize TEDxNYED are terrific human beings and educators who stage a world-class event with terrific speakers.
When TED began, it was a small gathering of smart and talented folks. Each attendee was also a presenter. For the swells who can afford to be invited to TED, they undoubtedly enjoy a rich social learning experience. For the rest of us peasants, we’re the reason TED can sell Rolex and BMW commercials. TED is a television show. We get to peep in on the action from our PCs like we’re hiding in the basement watching naughty videos.
In addition to my sense that too many people believe that TED is the only place to find smart people or ideas, the format of TED Talks disturbs me.
Our society needs more dialogue and a whole lot fewer monologues. The US Senate has become a TED Talk where nothing is accomplished. We cannot solve tough problems by giving speeches. We need collective action, not soaring rhetoric. I would love nothing more than to discuss teaching computer programming with fellow TEDxNYED speaker Douglas Rushkoff or matters of school reform with the other terrific speakers. Imagine what one might learn from a discussion between the sorts of people who perform TED talks!
Schools that make kids perform TED Talks do so because the format is consistent with a tradition of oral book reports or making PowerPoint presentations on a topic you don’t care about to a bored audience.
There are indeed some excellent TED Talks made by remarkable humans. In fact, I wrote a blog post recommending several TED Talks to share with kids.
For those of you who can’t attend TEDxNYED in-person, I’m sure that the event will be leaked/streamed/piddled/wee-weed or whatever those crazy kids are doing today on the Internets. Check the http://tedxnyed.com/2013/ for more info!
In the meantime, I humbly offer my last TED Talk.
Coming to a Classroom Near You!
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine
At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another grueling school year, each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of during my school years.
What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? Nope, it was Disney films.
Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Lion King
Mighty Joe Young
The Little Mermaid
Angels in the
The Big Green*
Planet of the Apes
Mighty Joe Young
The Lion King II
The Road to
Remember the Titans
Rocky & Bullwinkle
Star Wars: Return
Mr. Holland’s Opus
This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.
My Daughter the Rodeo Clown
Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, Career Day had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.
Which is most pathetic?
a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 (standardized) testing
b) Career Day
c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day
The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! “
The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!
You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.
If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ” At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.
*My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game – somewhere in there a lesson for us all.
Treat yourself or the other makers in your life to these incredible new (or old favorite) materials and sources of inspiration for future learning adventures.
Be sure to click on the links at the bottom of this list for additional materials you’ll want under the tree.
All of the recommended products are affordable and may be purchased online with one-click!
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I often explain to graduate students that I don’t play devil’s advocate or any other clever games. Just because I may say something unsaid by others, does not mean that I don’t come to that perspective after careful thought and introspection.
Being an educator is a sacred obligation. Those of us who know better, need to do better and stand between the defenseless children we serve and the madness around us. If a destructive idea needs to be challenged or a right defended, I’ll speak up.
My career allows me to spend time in lots of classrooms around the world and to work with thousands of educators each year. This gives me perspective. I am able to identify patterns, good and bad, often before colleagues become aware of the phenomena. I have been blessed with a some communication skills and avenues for expression. I’ve published hundreds of articles and spoken at even more conferences.
People seem interested in what I have to say and for that I am extremely grateful.
The problem is that I am increasingly called upon to argue against a popular trend. That tends to make me unpopular. In the field of education, where teachers are “nice,” criticism is barely tolerated. Dissent is seen as defect and despite all of my positive contributions to the field, I run the risk of being dismissed as “that negative guy.”
Recently, I have written or been quoted on the following topics:
- Against Khan Academy in Wired magazine
- Against BYOD in Learning and Leading with Technology
- Against interactive whiteboards in Technology and Learning magazine
- Against tablet computers in education (in-press) for Scholastic Administrator magazine
- Against video games in education in Parade magazine
- Against Bill Gates’ influence on school policy in GOOD and The Huffington Post
- Against Daniel Pink’s dubious learning theories on my personal blog
- Against Education Nation in The Huffington Post
I’ve also written against homework, NCLB, RTTT, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Joel Klein, standardized testing, Education Nation, Common Core Curriculum Standards, Accelerated Reader, merit pay, Arne Duncan, union-busting, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, mayoral control, the ISTE NETs, Hooked-on-Phonics, President Obama’s education policies, etc… You get the idea.
These are perilous times for educators. When once bad education policy was an amuse-bouche you could easily ignore, it has become a Carnegie Deli-sized shit sandwich. Educators are literally left to pick their own poison, when choice is permitted at all. If I take a stand against a fad or misguided education policy, my intent is to inform and inspire others to think differently or take action.
So why, pray tell am I boring my dear readers with my personal angst? An old friend and colleague just invited me to write a magazine article about the “Flipped Classroom.” Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum. But….
The question is, “Do I wish to gore yet another sacred cow?” Is speaking truth to power worth the collateral damage done to my career?
In the 1960s, the great Neil Postman urged educators to hone highly-tuned BS and crap detectors. Those detectors need to be set on overdrive today. I’m concerned that I’m the only one being burned.
What to do? What to do?
I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!Whatever It Is, I'm Against It by Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar From the Marx Bros. film "Horse Feathers" (1932)
I’m a curious guy who wonders a lot about the forces and rhetoric influencing education. At the risk of kicking a hornet’s nest and incurring the wrath of being flamed, I wish to raise what I honestly believe to be an important issue. If you are unfamiliar with my work, outspoken opposition to the standards movement, commitment to equity or embrace of computers in education, I humbly ask you to consider the questions posed in this blog post in the spirit with which they are intended – to stimulate thoughtful professional dialogue or at least Google my body of work.
A handful of educators have been blogging now for more than a decade. Countless others have fallen in love with social media. They make conference presentations showing viral YouTube videos and lead Twitter workshops. There is more than an air of grandiosity that accompanies the use of the tools known collectively as Web 2.0. This self-importance is manifest in two ways.
- Frustration that every educator hasn’t joined the PLN/PLC/social network/Twitterverse/blogopshere, because “if they only knew what I know…”
- A few gazillion blog posts and tweets proclaiming the use of Web 2.0 as either already having transformed education or the prediction that it will transform education. A variation on this theme is the threat that social media will destroy, replace or delegitimize formal education.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but I have a very serious question to ask.
In this era of heightened educational “accountability,” why are there so few, if any, demands being made for evidence of Web 2.0′s efficacy in schools?
I have my own hypotheses, but I would prefer to read some of yours.
Dear colleagues and friends of progressive education,
It is time for us to stop arguing against high-stakes testing. Americans LOVE the idea of high-stakes as long as it means that their kid beats someone else’s kids at school.
We are losing both the battle and the war of ideas.
I humbly suggest that we replace high-stakes testing with the term, constant testing.
Parents, policy-makers and taxpayers are likely unaware that kids in some jurisdictions spend dozens of days each school year taking standardized tests. That doesn’t include the costs or time wasted on endless test-prep. This practice is obviously unsustainable, excessive and nonsensical.
This subtle rhetorical shift to constant testing has the potential to move public opinion in our direction.
The first step in improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) in our classrooms is to find evidence of its existence.
S.T.E.M. currently suffers from the Sasquatch Syndrome. People have heard of S.T.E.M. just like they have heard of Bigfoot, but they’ve never actually seen either.
Two years ago, I taught Masters level Elementary Math and Science methods courses. One night, I asked the class of preservice teachers currently student teaching what I thought was an innocent question. I asked, “Tell me about how science is approached in your school?” The students looked around nervously for a moment and then shared observations like the following:
- We are supposed to do science after testing season.
- The science teacher is on maternity leave.
- Nobody knows where the key to the science materials is.
- Our school is focusing on numeracy and literacy.
- Science is supposed to happen on Mondays, but we have had a lot of holidays.
You get the idea…
Not a single student teacher working in several dozen Southern California elementary schools could cite a single incident of science being taught. Forget about engineering or computer science.
After all, it’s not like little kids are curious or enjoy exploring the world around them. You couldn’t possibly teach reading or language arts in a scientific context, right?
Will Richardson wrote a nice blog post, “The Thin Value of Proposition,” in which he argues that the true value in education is the relationship between teachers and students. Good point.
“By taking the burden of lesson planning and assessment creation for all students at once away from the teacher, administrators can empower teachers to individualize instruction for every student.”
Tony,I would argue that the mess we’re in is largely the result of twenty years of thinking like you describe. Reducing teachers to technicians who may make decisions about individualizing instruction for each student is impossible since agency to make larger decisions has been steadily robbed from teachers, along with an ability to fight the forces deskilling them. Teachers incapable of deciding what to teach will be less capable of determining how to teach. There is no pedagogical change or dramatic shift in student outcomes possible without an ability to change the intellectual diet provided for children.
Papert used to say that School at best teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is most important – the piece we have always taught. Take mathematics for example, the curriculum and pedagogical approach has remained constant since the Inquisition, despite dramatic societal shifts and the revolutionary impact of computers in real mathematics, not the BS served up in school. Teachers can either be experts in the true nature of mathematics, it’s beauty and power or devise little tricks to make a toxic curriculum a tad less poisonous. The result of that decision creates a scenario where we teach “Algebra in Utero,” pushing it down a grade level constantly while NAEP scores remain stagnant.
I want children to have teachers who can see a flower, read a short story or use a newspaper article as the basis for connecting lots of disciplines and powerful ideas at any moment to create rich rewarding learning contexts for children.
I’m in Krakow, Poland right now and am staying across the street from sort of school. I walked by today and heard children singing along to a song being played on the piano by their teacher. I don’t hear a lot of singing in American classrooms these days.
I became an elementary school teacher at the very end of the era when you needed to learn how to play the piano a tiny bit, teach PE, harvest meal worms and make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes. We were explicitly talked about how if we saw educational value in playing Scrabble for three months, how to identify the educational objectives being met and write them in our plan book.
For generations, THAT was a teacher. Why do we ask so little of them today?
When I walk into classrooms, rich and poor – private and public, around the world today I see a remarkable return to whole class instruction. Gone are the projects, centers and other joyful spaces for becoming lost in one’s own learning. This sad reality may be the result of changing the definition of teaching to the delivery of curriculum and management of classrooms.
The elaborate ruse called differentiated instruction is only necessary because the curriculum is handed down to teachers on stone tablets. If the educators closest to children had the greatest voice in curricular decisions, individualization would be natural.Gary Stager