Stop the Insanity
Simple strategies to address the growing epidemic of at-risk learners.
October 2007 issue of District Administration Magazine

When politicians shout and headlines highlight underperforming schools and children left behind, they are referring to the growing number of students labeled “at-risk.” The phenomena leading to this designation include poverty, behavioral disorders and the rapidly growing epidemic of learning disabilities. “Atrisk” has really come to mean, “Not good at school.” Consider the possibility that if a student is not good at school, then that school is not good for the student. Perhaps the school is at-risk.

From 1999 through 2001 I worked with MIT colleagues Seymour Papert and David Cavallo on the creation of a high-tech, multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens within the troubled Maine Youth Center. Students in a person often represent the hat trick of being at-risk-poverty, social problems and learning disabilities.

My Ph.D. dissertation documents the remarkable work of dozens of these students and shares details of constructionist learning theory, which was supported and validated by the learning environment we created. Subsequent work with large populations of at-risk students in the United States, Canada and Australia leads me to share the following, some might say radical, proposals for serving at-risk learners.

Some define insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If a student is underperforming or not learning, subjecting him or her to more of the same, perhaps louder or for longer periods of time, will not achieve a different result. This is a punitive approach to teaching that increases student alienation.

The state of Maine freed us from all curricular and assessment requirements. This made it possible for us to focus on each learner. At the very least, every school can try fresh approaches to see if new interventions reduce the severity of the at-risk population.

Treat all new students as welcome guests in your classroom. Leave their umulative folders in the file cabinet so you may get to know them without prejudice. Do not allow colleagues and past teachers to poison your relationship with students before you even get to know them.

One student, Michael, was absolutely brilliant at engineering. He could assemble, test and improve a dozen robotic machines in the time it takes most people to get started. He could converse at length with MIT professors about engineering principles. Yet everything in Michael’s permanent record indicated that he was illiterate. We had clues that this was a misdiagnosis,since Michael programmed computers and garnered information from books around the classroom but never made a big deal about it. Instead we focused on Michael and his current work. We provided assistance when asked and when we observed a teachable moment. A spirit of collegiality and trust was formed between us. Such a bond is critical in any productive context for learning but is often lacking in the lives of at-risk learners.

A few weeks before Michael was going to be released from the facility on his 18th birthday, he quietly sat at his computer for long stretches of time busily working on something important to him. Upon completion of this project, Michael presented us with a 12,000-word autobiography.

My colleague feigned amazement and said, “We were told you were illiterate.” Michael replied, “Oh, I could always read and write, but I wasn’t a very strong reader and I didn’t like reading about puppies.” Then his voice trailed off and he said, “I liked reading about NASA,” as if to suggest that nobody cared about what he liked to read and tossed him in the illiterate bin. Michael and so many other at-risk learners suff er from what Herbert Koh calls “creative maladjustment.” We found that students proud of their work maintained secret portfolios, even if they refused to produce such documentation for us.

Here are a few additional suggestions for better educating at-risk students.

1. Move the goalposts

It may be unrealistic to believe a student years below grade-level will catch up in a few months, regardless of a teacher’s brilliance. The goal needs to be what football coaches call forward progress. We need to take individual students from where they are and move them forward.

2. Be honest

Prioritize and have honest objectives. If a child is disruptive, teaching him or her Algebra 2 may be unrealistic since your real goal is for the student to behave. Institutions give grades for academic subjects, while society just worries about the student being a behavioral problem.

3. Imagine the impossible

If student discipline or behavior is your primary concern, think about the places where such problems do not exist and study them. Reflect on why such activities as summer camp, organized sports or afterschool jobs don’t suffer from the same pathologies, and identify variables you may integrate in the classroom.

4. Remember that less is more

We may need to do a lot more of what we know about effective primary school teaching. Integrated studies, thematic teaching, a centers approach or storytelling as teaching offer models of engaging students without overwhelming them with different rituals and teachers and giving them insufficient time for doing quality work.

5. Stop the name calling

This one is a biggie and extends beyond blaming students for their predicament. Make a concerted effort to refrain from labeling students at-risk, under-performing, etc. Their status is not a surprise to them, and labeling them only harms their self-esteem. Other labels, often considered positive, such as “multiple intelligences learning style” also have a deleterious effect by placing students in a new set of boxes.

6. Eliminate academic competition

While competition may be human nature, it’s highly destructive in the learning environment. It is only possible for students to make steady personal progress if one may comfortably read Dr. Seuss while a classmate tackles James Michener. Th e typical high school classroom sanctions ridicule and rewards degree of difficulty. This is counterproductive for at-risk learners.

7. Create authentic experiences

Disengaged students need to work on long-term meaningful work they can take pride in. Whether you embrace projectbased learning or something akin to the apprenticeship model used successfully by the Big Picture schools, students, especially those at-risk, need to be engaged in authentic experiences.

Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

8. Offer greater curricular diversity

The biggest mistake made in an effort to increase test scores is doubling up on reading and mathematics at the expense of the other subjects, especially electives. At-risk students may already dislike school. Depriving them of opportunities to learn something they like by killing-off electives, social studies, science and the arts is a recipe for disastrous dropout rates.

9. Have material rich classrooms

Learn from great kindergarten classes and make classrooms material rich. Not only should there be abundant constructive and computational technology and art supplies, but every classroom needs a wellstocked classroom library of fiction and nonfiction books at every reading level.

Allowing one of our 18-year-old students to “read” a book on tape led him to say, “This is the first time I ever saw pictures when I read.” Access to such materials may quickly lead to literate behaviors. Ubiquitous access to computers may offer a opportunity for at-risk students to demonstrate expertise in a domain not dominated by teachers.

10. Let go of the checklists

Great teachers know that once interest is generated in a story or topic, connections may be made to any other subject. Your scope and sequence is less important than children learning.

11. Talk with the students

While this sounds obvious, I meet highschool-age students regularly who have never had a conversation with an adult. Sure, adults have talked at them or yelled at them or told them what to do, but an alarming number of students have never engaged in an actual intergenerational conversation among equally interested parties. Without reversing this trend, students will never be able to be productive citizens. Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

12. The “worst” students need your “best” teachers

We all know the tendency to assign the best students the finest teachers. While we may quibble over a defi nition of “best,” the most flexible, creative, compassionate teachers need to work with your least successful students.

13. Keep the students engaged

The one rule in our Maine classroom was that every student needed to be doing something. Children understand this, and it’s good, simple advice for educators of atrisk students as well. If one strategy isn’t working, do something else.

14. Don’t put students at risk in the first place

Can you imagine how much effort and suffering Michael invested in being illiterate? Wouldn’t asking what he liked to read when he was seven have saved a great deal of hardship? It may take decades to overcome today’s earlier and tougher calls for accountability, which result in the conditions that breed at-risk students.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

(www. districtadministration.com/pulse).

Following speaking at the prestigious WISE Conference in Qatar (November 2017), Gary Stager delivered a keynote address on learning-by making at a conference held at The American University in Cairo. The video is finally available. Enjoy!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

In May 2018, Gary Stager sat down with Change.School founders, Bruce Dixon and Will Richardson for their Modern Learners Podcast, to discuss learning, teaching, school improvement, and a host of other provocative topics. The title of the podcast is “The Lost Art of Teaching with Gary Stager.”

You may listen to the conversation or download the audio podcast here or watch the Zoom video below.

I once heard former President Clinton say, “every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Educators stand on the shoulders of giants and should be fluent in the literature of their chosen field.  We should be reading all of the time, but summer is definitely an opportunity to “catch-up.”

Regrettably too many “summer reading lists for educators” are better suited for those concerned with get-rich quick schemes than enriching the lives of children. Case-in-point, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools published “What to Read this Summer,” a list containing not a single book about teaching, learning, or even educational leadership. Over the past few years, I offered a canon for those interested in educational leadership.

When I suggested that everyone employed at my most recent school read at least one book over the summer, the principal suggested I provide options. Therefore, I chose a selection of books that would appeal to teachers of different grade levels and interests, but support and inspire the school’s desire to be more progressive, creative, child-centered, authentic, and project-based.

Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition.
Aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level.  Illustrates how to honor the “hundred languages of children.”


Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools
A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days.


Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business.
Aimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. Students spend 40% each week in authentic internship settings and the remaining school time is focused on developing skills for the internship. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 


Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
A seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century.  Papert worked with Piaget, co-invented Logo, and is the major force behind educational computing, robotics, and the Maker Movement.


Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.
A clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion by a leader at Harvard’s Project Zero. 


Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
“One of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade.” (Gary Stager) Tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela are taught to play classical music at a high level. LA Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a graduate of “El Sistema.” The lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 


Neil Gershenfeld , Alan Gershenfeld, Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (2017). Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution.

In his groundbreaking books, When Things Start to Think and Fab, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld predicted the past quarter century of technological innovation and defined the basis for the modern maker movement. In this new volume, Gershenfeld collaborated with his social scientist and game designer brothers to help us all imagine the next fifty years of technological innovation and how it will change our world. 


Learn by making this summer; alone, with colleagues, or with your own children!
Check out the CMK Press collection of books on learning-by-making by educators for educators!

With all of the problems in the world, I know what you’ve been thinking. “I sure wish there was a new Gary Stager TED Talk to watch.” Well, your prayers to Judge Roy Moore have been answered.

Last Spring, I was headed to Germany to be in-residence at a school where my great friend, colleague, and former student, Amy Dugré, is part of the leadership team. A few weeks before my residency, I received a lovely email from tenth grade students at the International School of Dusseldorf. The letter acknowledged my forthcoming work at the school and kindly invited me to participate in a TEDx event they were organizing. The theme of the TEDx event was identity under the banner of “Who Am I?”

I told the kids that I despise all things TED and especially loathe delivering TED talks(1), but if they wanted me to participate, I would be happy to stand on the red dot and pretend to be an aspiring viral video star. Given the maturity expressed in the invitation, I hoped that my candor would lead the kids to consider reasons why some might not share their enthusiasm for TED.

In the end, the tenth graders’ charm won me over and I accepted their kind invitation.  When asked for the topic of my performance, my inner smartass kicked into gear and I came up with the title, “Care Less.”

In an attempt to further mock the pomposity of TED, I supplied the following abstract.

Any success I may have experienced is attributable to overcoming obstacles needlessly set by others and learning early on that many of the things other care deeply about, simply do not matter at all. This awesome TED talk will explore my epic quest to triumph in a world of needless prerequisites, arbitrary hierarchies, and hegemonic pathways. Caring less about the sort of compliance and schooling traditions imposed on young people may lead them to focus on finding things that bring them joy, beauty, purpose, and authentic achievement.

It is often the case that the germ of my best ideas are borne of wisecracks and this topic was no exception. Spending time in highly competitive private schools where folks too readily accept bourgeois notions of what educational preparation for the “real world” truly means leaves me convinced that I chose the right topic.

The very nature of this terrific student organized event required the TED Talks to be self-indulgent. That makes sharing my talk slightly uncomfortable. I took seriously the opportunity to speak directly to high school students who I hoped would benefit from an adult offering a different narrative from so many of their teachers and parents. I only wish I had the opportunity to give the talk more than once, but that’s the problem with TED Talks. TED is a TV show without any of the benefits of a television studio or taking the show on the road.

I wrote the talk an hour before showtime and delivered it with no monitor or timer in front of me. I’m sure that the performance suffers, but that the message may manage to be worthwhile nonetheless. I hope you or some teenagers find it interesting.

In the final analysis, I’m enormously proud of what I said. I just can’t bear to watch a second of it.


(1) Remarkably, I have now delivered four completely different TED Talks. I spent months before my first TEDx Talk (Reform™) obsessing over the high-stakes chance to go viral and become famous beyond my wildest dreams. The experience made me ill. I then decided I needed to confront my fears and asked to try it again a year later. That time, I spent virtually no time preparing and convinced myself that I didn’t give a damn (We Know What To Do). The audio at the venue was problematic, but the TED experience was less soul crushing. Just when I thought TED Talks were behind me, I was invited to give a third TEDx talk at the American School of Bombay. I have worked at the school since 2004 and felt obligated to oblige. By then, I had abandoned any hope of being a YouTube sensation or being knighted by the Queen and decided to share the legacy of my friend, mentor, and hero, Seymour Papert. People seem to appreciate that talk, Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*.

 

Look at what preK-6 Mexican teachers did in my recent PBL 360 workshop in Guadalajara. This was their first experience with engineering, physical computing, and programming. They designed, created, and programmed these “birds” in less than two hours with the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and SNAP!

The prompt was simple…

“Make a Bird. Singing and dancing is appreciated.”

There was no instruction. The entire project was completed in under two hours – roughly the equivalent of two class periods.

My work continues to demonstrate the limits of instruction, the power of construction, and the Piagetian notion that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is simply no substitute for experience. Constructive technology and computing amplify human potential and expand the range, breadth, and depth of possible projects. This is critical since the project should be the smallest unit of concern for educators.

Look at these short video clips sharing the teachers’ projects and compare what is possible during an educator’s first or second computing experience with the unimaginative and pedestrian “technology” professional development typically offered. We need to raise our standards substantially.

“You cannot behave as if children are competent if you behave as if teachers are incompetent.” – Gary Stager

The following videos are unedited clips of each group sharing their project. Start listing the plethora of curricular standards satisfied by a single project of this kind.

Operatic Diva Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

The Parrott from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Robot Pengin from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Three-Function Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Singing Bird with Creepy Eyes from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

About the author

Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. You may learn more about him and reach out here.


The Hummingbirds Robotics Kit is also available from Amazon.com.

Gary Stager is returning to Australia to once again keynote the FutureSchools Conference in his adopted second hometown of Melbourne in March 2018.
He will be leading a masterclass, keynote address, and a presentation on the Expo floor.
Making, Coding, and Engineering Whether You Have a Makerspace or Not (masterclass)
The co-author of “the bible of the maker movement in schools,” 1:1 computing pioneer, and popular speaker, Gary Stager, returns to Australia to lead a masterclass based on thirty-five years of helping teachers realize the power of learning-by-doing in their classrooms. Participants will gain benefit of the expertise Gary has developed leading “making” workshops around the world for the past four years. This work is distilled into a several rich hands-on making, coding, and engineering activities using a variety of affordable technologies that may be successfully implemented in any classroom.
Learn to learn and teach with in the exciting world of Hummingbird robotics, littleBits, Scratch, Snap!, Turtle Art, wearable electronics, microcontrollers, digital paper craft, programmable toys, and other new materials in a project-based context.

You will learn:

  • How new tools and technology can reinvigorate Project-Based Learning
  • Best classroom practices for integrating maker technology
  • How to plan engaging projects based on the TMI design model
  • How to choose the technologies with the maximum learning impact
  • How to make the case for making, tinkering, and engineering across the curriculum
Bring a laptop and your imagination. We’ll supply the rest (craft materials, art supplies, construction elements). This workshop is suitable for all schools, grades, and subject areas.
Beyond Creativity: Educating for an Uncertain World (main presentation)
Join Dr. Gary Stager as he makes the case for embracing modernity as a way of preserving the finest traditions of child development and preparing children to solve problems neither their parents or teachers can imagine. As a father, grandfather, and veteran educator, Gary remains optimistic that each kid can realize their potential if parents and educators are courageous enough to stand on the side of children. During his presentation, Gary will illustrate how learning-by-doing, new technological materials, and timeless craft traditions can supercharge the learning process. He will encourage us to educate for the the future of our kids, rather than our past, and demonstrate how not all screens are created equally. Along the way, he will share evidence of educators more than up to this herculean challenge.
Making the Digital Technologies Curriculum Meaningful (expo talk)
Look hard enough and you should find objectives in the Australian and state Digital Technologies curricula that may be used to support rich, relevant, and authentic project-based learning across the P-12 curriculum. Dr. Stager will help you navigate the mountain of tables, objectives, and contradictory messages so that all educators have the courage to begin realizing the power of digital technologies to learn and do what was perhaps unimaginable just a few years ago with a sense of urgency and confidence. He will define critical terms, dispel myths, and offer an expansive educational vision that builds upon the new curriculum.

I once heard former President Clinton say, “every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Educators stand on the shoulders of giants and should be fluent in the literature of their chosen field.  We should be reading all of the time, but summer is definitely an opportunity to “catch-up.”

Regrettably too many “summer reading lists for educators” are better suited for those concerned with get-rich quick schemes than enriching the lives of children. Case-in-point, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools published “What to Read this Summer,” a list containing not a single book about teaching, learning, or even educational leadership. Over the past few years, I offered a canon for those interested in educational leadership and a large collection of suggested books for creative educators and parents.

When I suggested that everyone employed at my most recent school read at least one book over the summer, the principal suggested I provide options. Therefore, I chose a selection of books that would appeal to teachers of different grade levels and interests, but support and inspire the school’s desire to be more progressive, creative, child-centered, authentic, and project-based.

Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition.
Aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level.  Illustrates how to honor the “hundred languages of children.”

 

 

 


Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools
A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days.

 

 

 


Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business.
Aimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. Students spend 40% each week in authentic internship settings and the remaining school time is focused on developing skills for the internship. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 


Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
A seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century.  Papert worked with Piaget, co-invented Logo, and is the major force behind educational computing, robotics, and the Maker Movement.


Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.
A clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion by a leader at Harvard’s Project Zero. 

 


Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
“One of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade.” (Gary Stager) Tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela are taught to play classical music at a high level. LA Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a graduate of “El Sistema.” The lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 

Check out the CMK Press collection of books on learning-by-making by educators for educators!

This time of year, the “news” is full of heartwarming back-to-school tales of good citizens buying school supplies for needy classrooms. Pop-music footnotes, Katy Perry and Pharrell the Plagiarist have both engaged in selfless acts of corporate shilling philanthropy shameless publicity to help students get school supplies. Donors Choose has created a social media platform where teachers can beg crowdfund for crayons and Kleenex. (Read my article about Donors Choose)

Ain’t it swell that school supply supplying is bigger and better than ever?

HELL NO!

I will not help teachers commit suicide by supporting these feel good attempts to turn basic public school funding into an act of charity. Each time educators normalize deprivation and substitute charity as social justice withheld, they will find themselves with fewer classroom resources. Such actions also spurn greater public school privatization and devaluing of teachers.

Q:      You know who should pay for school supplies?

A:      Tax payers!

Perhaps corporations and pop stars could begin paying their fair share of taxes so that Katy Perry isn’t forced to enrich Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney’s Staples.

But, but, but, but, but… teachers spend a fortune on classroom supplies that their students need. Right, I get it. I do too. I spent $1,000 the first month I taught 4th grade. That’s not the point.

First of all, teachers should be able to deduct those costs off their income taxes. Second, public schools should be adequately funded. Third, teachers should stop contributing to consumerism and ask what their kids really need.

Yes, I’m going there. Every time a teacher requires 4 of these, 3 of those… a specific brand of pen, or an official notebook they contribute to needless family strife and exacerbate inequality.

When you require a Trapper Keeper (the Volvo of notebooks) or ban the Trapper Keeper (the three-hole punched incubus), you do not “teach organizational skills” as much as you teach compliance, reinforce prehistoric educational practices, and place a needless financial strain on your students’ families. It’s a freakin’ notebook for God’s sake. If a teacher is concerned with enforcing whether a student writes on one of both sides of a paper, or cares about the brand or color of their notebook, they should seek professional help.

Parents should stop worrying about this nonsense and expect public schools to be adequately funded and stocked with necessary supples – as is required by law and practice.

We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We can afford a cello and laptop for every child. It is a sin to beg for pencils.

So, let’s review. I salute the folks who wish to contribute to public education. Volunteering, contributing to organizations like Access Books, bring a performance to school, or pay for things kids might love are a much better idea. Every time a school wastes a second fundraising for basic supplies, a billionaire replaces a teacher with a YouTube video

I just received the following email from my nephew, a conscientious and excellent student currently enrolled at an East Coast university costing $68,000/year – before textbooks, etc…

The subject line in the email was PISSED

Since I know how much you love Pearson…

I’m taking a math course and an accounting course this term, each requires the completion of weekly online homework assignments. In order to gain access to these assignments, each student must make an account using a course ID so that our scores will automatically be sent to the professors, and purchase access to the e-books online. The accounting textbook is McGraw-Hill, and the math book is Pearson.

Each e-book will cost me $100, only because we are required to use these websites for our homework. I’m literally buying homework.

I thought Pearson’s death-grip on my throat was over, but alas…

Click to enlarge image

It is worth noting that all of my nephew’s other coursework thus far has been project-based and authentic.

OF COURSE, a required math course and math-adjacent “Accounting,” rely on the same-old shitty “answer the odd numbered questions” alternative to an actual productive education experience. This is not a small point.

As Seymour Papert told me, [paraphrase] “If you are not concerned that not a single progressive development in education has had an impact on ‘math,” it means ultimately that no matter what else your school does to make education relevant, there is some part of the day or week where you introduce coercion, irrelevance, and misery into the system.” This coercion is corrosive and ultimately undermines any other learner-centered efforts. As I like to say, “the weeds will always kill the flowers.”