As summer 2019 draws to a close, I am left with a sense of renewed optimism. It feels as if there is a growing appetite for the sort of progressive, constructionist, child-centered, Reggio inspired, project-based I have advocated for over my entire career. The popularity of our book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, interest in the other books we publish, and the success of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute contributes to my optimism. I spent much of August working in three different schools that are unapologetically progressive. They embrace things like project-based learning, no grades, multi-age grouping, authentic assessment, learning-by-making, and computing as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. I have not enjoyed this level of fun and meaningful work since I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, started one of the first camp computer programming programs, or collaborated with Seymour Papert on my doctoral research, when we created a multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens.

Recent news accounts detail how the children of the Koch Brothers are creating a progressive school in Wichita, Kansas, called Wonder. Even if that school and its potential spinoffs are the polar opposite of the obedience schools for other people funded by the Kochs, the mere recognition by rich people that progressive education is preferable (at least for their children) may be viewed as a small victory.

EduTwitter and education articles are awash in ideas with progressive intent. Unfortunately, much of the escalating volume of half-baked and often terrible advice dispensed is shallow, ahistoric, or just plain wrong. However, even impoverished or disingenuous notions of student voice, reflection, metacognition, choice, centers, exhibitions of work, Montessori education, agency, making, etc. are evidence of a growing desire for progressive education.

We may also see a demographic shift in the expectations for schooling by millennials who entered kindergarten the year No Child Left Behind was enacted and are now coming to grips with the costs of an impoverished educational experience focused on standardization, testing, and narrowing of the curriculum. Their K-12 education was distinguished by constant test-prep, teacher shaming, charter and privatization schemes, elimination of electives, and dismantling of arts programs.

Their teachers’ preparation was focused on animal control and curriculum delivery, absent practice in the art of teaching. Tens of thousands of Teach for America interns were thrown in front of a classroom after being handed a backpack of tricks and greeting card messages about “what a teacher makes.” Whole language, classroom centers, interdisciplinary projects, authentic assessment, pleasure reading, play, integration, and even recess were flickering flames in the heads of teachers old enough to remember the seventies. Donald Graves, Frank Smith, John Holt, Lillian Weber, Maxine Greene, Herb Kohl, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Ivan Illitch, Bev Bos, Vivian Paley, Dennis Littky, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer have been erased from the common language of educators. Award-winning school administrators congratulate themselves for their discovery of TED Talks on the hotel room TV during one of the many school discipline conferences. Sound educational theory has been replaced by “I believe.”

Hey Stager, I thought you said there was room for optimism? Those last two paragraphs are pretty brutal.

There is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, more demand for progressive education than there is supply.

The children of the first Millennials are now entering school. This emerging generation of parents will greet the schooling of their children with a hunger for a different educational diet than they experienced, even if they have no idea what that might be. Those of us who know better, need to do better. We need to create clear and distinguishable options for parents yearning for a creative, humane, and joyful educational experience for their children. I assert that the demand for progressive education already exceeds supply and will continue to grow.

Remarkable new materials and software are creating opportunities not just to teach things we have always wanted kids to know, but are granting students access to new knowledge domains, ways of knowing, and creative outlets unimaginable just a few years ago. Such objects-to-think-with help realize a modern sustainable form of progressive education.

The challenge: When the Koch Brothers and progressives value the same quality of education for their children, doing the right thing for all children might not only be viable, but on the right side of history. Imagine if the world awakes from its slumber and suddenly desires the kind of educational system many of us dream of. How would we meet the demand? Who will teach in that fashion? Who will teach the teachers? Where does one begin?

My recent work reminds me that even in schools fully committed to progressive ideals, we are building the plane while flying it. Regardless of the quality of their preservice education, teachers love children and want to be liberated from the shackles of compliance. Schools will need to educate children, their teachers, and the community all at the same time if they wish to invent a better future. You cannot visit this future, watch a video about it, or tweet it into existence. No amount of education tourism is a substitute for you and your colleagues taking the controls, confronting your compromises, and doing the right thing.

Issues to address as a community

My work in progressive schools has helped me identify a list of issues schools need to address in any attempt to realize their aspirations. Essential conversations are ongoing and essential, but must accompany bold, meaningful, and reflective practice.

Where do we begin?

  • Projects
  • Teaching for democracy
  • Independence and interdependence
  • The value of learning stories
  • Honoring childhood
  • Removing coercion, competition, and antagonism from the classroom
  • Interdisciplinary projects are not a mash-up but are rooted in reflective practice.
  • The importance of whimsy, beauty, and fun
  • Computer programing as a liberal art
  • The value of school R&D

Making the case for project-based learning

  • What is a project?
  • Projects as the curriculum, not a culminating activity
  • Teaching in a project-based environment
  • How do you know a kid is learning?

What happens in a progressive classroom?

  • The limits of instruction
  • What if a kid isn’t interested in a particular project?
  • Connecting to student interests
  • How long should a project last?
  • Classroom centers
  • Shaping the learning environment
  • Teacher as researcher

Curriculum

  • How do I satisfy “the curriculum” without teaching it?
  • How skills and knowledge emerge from projects
  • The power of themes
  • Finding the balance between student interests and the responsibility to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love
  • Why the constructive use of computers is non-negotiable.
  • Lessons from the Reggio Emilia Approach, El Sistema, constructionism, and other progressive traditions

The issues involved in realizing the ideals of progressive education are subtle and incredibly complex. They may even be impossible, but such aspirations are beneficial and worthy of a relentless pursuit.

Piaget “teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we wish for teachers to teach differently, they need to experience learning in new ways. If we want parents to support our progressive efforts, they too need to experience learning in different contexts.

We’re not clairvoyant and can’t predict what the future holds. We do however know a great deal about how to amplify the potential of each teacher and learner. I intend to dedicate the rest of my days making schools more productive contexts for learning so that each school day may be the best seven hours of a kid’s life.

I look forward to helping many more schools stand on the side children, perhaps even yours.

Please reach out if you are interested in PD, speaking, consulting services, family workshops, or school residencies.


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. 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 first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Two-Day Seminars with Will Richardson in October 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

 

 

Checking-in on teachers working on a robotics project during an Invent To Learn workshop

A reporter for an Australian education magazine recently sent
interview questions about robotics in education, including the obligatory question about AI. The final article, when it runs, only grabs a few of my statements mixed in amongst the thoughts of others. So, here is the interview in its entirety. Of late, I have decided to answer all reporter questions as if they are earnest and thoughtful. Enjoy!

Q: With the current focus on STEM, and the increasing need to engage students in hands-on STEM learning, what sort of potential exists for the teaching of robotics in the classroom?

GS: Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we believe that learning by doing is powerful, learning-by-making concretizes and situates powerful ideas. Robotics is one such medium for learning-by-making in a fashion that combines the actual use of concepts traditionally taught superficially or not at all.

In a learner-centered context, robotics adds colors to the crayon box. If in the recent past, seven year-olds made dinosaurs out of cereal boxes, now their cereal box dinosaurs can sing, dance, or send a text message to their grandmother, as long as state law still allows dinosaurs to use cellphones in schools.

Reggio Children’s Carla Rinaldi working with Aussie educators Prue & Stephanie at Constructing Modern Knowledge

Q: How important has robotics become in preparing students for the jobs of the future?

GS: Less than learning to play the cello, love theatre, or understand the importance of Thelonious Monk, the labor movement, or women’s history in a contemporary democracy.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: Do you think skills such as coding and programming will become just as important as learning Math and English in coming years?

GS: Such questions reveal how powerful ideas are often reduced to fads and buzzwords in a zero-sum notion of schooling. While it surely the case that any new idea introduced in schools runs the risk of stealing time and attention from something else, robotics is an interdisciplinary medium for expression, like drawing, painting, writing, composing

If our goals were as modest as to increase understanding of the decontextualized and often irrelevant nonsense found in the existing Math curriculum, kids would learn to program and engage in physical computing projects. The only context for using and therefore understanding many Math concepts is in computing activities. Absolute value on paper is a useless piece of vocabulary. If you are trying to design a robot to navigate an unfamiliar terrain or get your rocket ship to land on a planet in the video game you programmed, a working understanding of absolute value comes in quite handy.

For much of my generation, DNA is three letters representing three words I can neither remember or pronounce, plus that squiggly thing I don’t understand. Advances in technology now make it possible for year seven kids to manipulate DNA. I bet those kids will have a different relationship with genetics than previous generations.

Q: What sort of an impact does teaching the fundamentals of robotics have when it comes to possible career pathways for students?

GS: I don’t know and I do not trust anyone who claims to know the future of employment. Schools make a terrible mistake when they see their purpose as vocational in nature. The sorting of kids into winners and losers with career pathways determined by some artificial school assessment should be relegated to the dustbin of history. How well did the Hawke Government do at predicting the impact of social media? Schools should prepare children to solve problems that none of their teachers ever anticipated. Schools should do everything possible to create the conditions in which children can become good at something, while gaining a sense of what greatness in that domain might look like. The “something” is irrelevant. Currently, academic success has little to do with the development of expertise.

I have three adult university educated children. The only one to live on her own, with employment, and health insurance since the minute she graduated, was the art major. She enjoyed a fabulous well-rounded liberal arts education.

Q: Do you think schools are typically placing enough of an emphasis on robotics, coding, programming and artificial intelligence? Or do we still have a long way to go in embracing this technology in schools, particularly in Australia?

GS: In a wealthy nation like Australia (or the United States), every child should have their own personal multimedia laptop computer (30 years after Australia pioneered 1:1 computing) and they should learn to program that computer and control external devices not because it might lead to a job someday, but because programming and physical computing (a term preferable to robotics) are ways of gaining agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world.

Programming and robotics answer the question Seymour Papert began asking more than fifty years ago, “Does the computer program the child, or the child program the computer.” In an age of rising authoritarianism and “fake news,” learner agency is of paramount importance.

The first schools in the world where every kid owned a personal portable computer, used them for programming and robotics was in Australia!

Coding and programming are the same thing. As a proponent of high-quality educational experiences, I recommend programming and robotics as incubators of powerful ideas. AI largely remains science fiction. Its contemporary uses in education are dystopian in nature and should be rejected.

A scene from one of my family workshops

Q: When it comes to the teaching of STEM in schools, and particularly robotics, how well do you think Australia is placed compared to other countries? And, are our schools doing enough to prepare students for future jobs?

GS: International education comparisons are immoral and needlessly based on scarcity. In order for Australian students to succeed, it is unnecessary for children in New Zealand to fail. Competition in education always has deleterious effects.

A scene from one of my family workshops

Q: Do you think enough is being done in educating our future teachers about the importance of STEM and robotics during their tertiary education?

GS: No. The art of teaching and everything but curriculum delivery and animal control has been sadly removed from teacher preparation. Teachers taught in a progressive tradition see robotics as mere stuff and use it with ease and without specialised instruction.

Q: What are some of the steps schools can take to upskill their teachers in robotics? And how important is it to ensure teachers are appropriately skilled in teaching robotics?

GS:

  • Stop viewing robotics narrowly through the lens of robotics competitions where one rich school builds a truck to kill another rich school’s truck. Competition also has a prophylactic impact on the participation of girls.
  • Expand your notion of robotics more broadly as physical computing and see the whimsical, playful, beautiful projects shared in our book, Invent To Learn,this library of project videos (http://cmkfutures.com/competent-teachers/), the Birdbrain technologies video library (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxjgGxBG2QhymwC2FHpt3zw), and the work being done with the micro:bit around the world
  • Most importantly, schools need to embrace project-based learning, not as the pudding you get after suffering through a semester of instruction, but as the primary educational diet. Once that occurs, the power of robotics/physical computing as a vehicle for personal expression becomes self evident.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: What are some of the ways teachers can incorporate robotics into the Australian Digital Technologies Curriculum?

GS: By doing something. There are remarkable new materials available like the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kits, (https://inventtolearn.com/bit/) but schools have now had access to kid-friendly robotics kits from LEGO since 1987.

I also recommend placing teachers and parents in meaningful hands-on experiences such as my family workshops described at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=4452, or the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: In coming years, how much of an emphasis do you think will be placed on robotics education in schools?

GS: Fads fizzle. One’s ability to control computational devices will only increase in importance.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?

GS: The voluptuous Australian national curriculum in design and technology should be replaced by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s pithy 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. 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 first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Two-Day Seminars with Will Richardson in October 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

I’ve never been good at ice-breakers or getting-to-know-you games. If I am being paid to teach, whether it be children or adults, that’s my focus. I never worry about classroom management because I never enter a classroom thinking I need to manage it. “Hi, I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do!”

I take seriously the Reggio Emilia inspired notion that the primary responsibility of a teacher is to be a researcher – one who makes private thinking public and invisible thinking visible. Teachers should work* to understand the thinking of each student and identify what they can do in order to prepare the learning environment for the next intellectual development.

During my educator workshops around the world I often find that the best engineers are preschool teachers, the best mathematicians teach P.E., and the most natural programmers teach 5th grade (or vice versa?).  I have certainly found plenty of veteran teachers to be much more sophisticated technology users than their younger peers. Starting the workshop with preconceived notions of who the participants are or what they think they know only narrows the possibilities for serendipity and exceeding expectations.

This is the time of year when teachers meet with teachers of the next grade level to discuss the students they are about to receive. Perhaps this common practice is counterproductive. A student’s “file” can be a life sentence. Why be prejudiced about a student  before you meet her? Why not start every class with fresh eyes, an open mind, and open heart? Ask yourself, “How do I make this the best seven hours or forty-three minutes of a kid’s life?”


Footnote:

It's a lot less like work than it about caring for each student or getting to know them on a collegial level.


Marvin Minsky & Gary Stager

One great joy of my life has been getting to know and work with so many of my heroes/sheroes. Even greater satisfaction comes from sharing those people with my fellow educators, via books, presentations, and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Over dinner thirty years ago, one of my mentors, Dan Watt dropped some wisdom on me when he said, “writing is hard.” Writing is hard. I find sitting down to write is even harder. The reward of writing is your work being read by others, especially when readers report thinking differently as a result. Even the “hate mail” I received as a magazine columnist and editor made the agony of writing worthwhile.

While proud of many things I have written, three pieces stand out as enormous honors. Being asked by the science journal of record, Nature, to author the obituary of my friend and mentor, Dr. Seymour Papert, was a difficult challenge and great privilege. Learning later that the great Alan Kay recommended me for the assignment took my breath away. I will remain forever grateful for his confidence in my ability to eulogize our mutual friend in such an august journal.

On two other occasions, I have been invited to contribute to books by my heroes. A few years ago, the prolific progressive author and educator, Herb Kohl, asked me to write a response piece to the great musician, David Amram, for the book, The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education. My fellow contributors include Bill T. Jones, Bill Ayers, Whoopi Goldberg, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Lisa Delpit, Maxine Greene, and others. Many readers may be unaware of my music studies and the fact that my career began as a public school arts advocate. Sharing anything, let alone a book, with the remarkable Herbert Kohl remains a source of enormous pride. This is an important book that should receive greater attention.

I first met Artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, in the late 1980s. I cannot say that I spent a great deal of time with him over the subsequent decades, but anyone who ever encountered Marvin can testify to the impact that I had on them, perhaps down to the molecular level. The fact that Marvin agreed to spend time leading a fireside chat with any interested educator at the first eight Constructing Modern Knowledge institutes continues to blow my mind. I will forever cherish his wit, wisdom, friendship, and generosity.

Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education is a brand new book based on essays by Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the great scientists, inventors, and intellectuals of the past century. Our mutual friend, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, a hugely important figure in her own right, edited a text in which important essays by Minsky were assembled and responded to by an amazing collection of Marvin’s friends. One of Marvin’s proteges, Xiao Xiao, illustrated the book. The contributors to this book include:

  • Co-inventor of the Logo programming language, Cynthia Solomon
  • Father of the personal computer, Alan Kay
  • Legendary computer science professor, author, and pioneer of the Open Courseware movement, Hal Abelson
  • Former Director the MIT Media Laboratory, Walter Bender
  • Artificial intelligence pioneer and MIT professor, Patrick Henry Winston
  • Software engineer, inventor, and executive, Brian Silverman
  • Software engineer, Mike Travers
  • Haptics engineer and scientist, Margaret Minsky
  • Me

I can’t speak for my contribution, but am confident that Inventive Minds will stimulate a great deal of thought and dialogue among you and your colleagues. Buy the book and enjoy some great summer reading!


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.

It’s time to beef-up your classroom making library

Here’s a chance to spend your Amazon gift cards and brighten your classroom with kids learning by making. The following is an assortment of recent discoveries to inspire independent reading, making, tinkering, and engineering in your classroom. There are beautiful project books filled with how-to advice, fun picture books, and several books intended to help kids learn to sew. If you want to engage in eTextile, wearable technology, or soft circuits projects, knowing your way around a needle and thread is a good idea.

While these books are recommended for independent student reading, there are lots of ideas for whole classroom projects and reading aloud.

An ingenious picture book, with plenty of information, for kids of all ages in a style similar to the classic The Way Things Work.

The Smithsonian Maker Lab book series are the sort of gorgeous DK books kids love.

I’m a giant fan of Jane Bull’s books. All of them. Buy them all, but this newish volume contains clever STEMy project ideas.

Lovely and clear book for motivated 10-14 year-olds interested in really understanding circuitry. Best of all, the book takes a project-approach.

This new book/LEGO combo by the evil Klutz geniuses contains plans for terrific inventions utilizing simple machines. Get the Klutz LEGO Chain Reacti0ns book and Crazy Contraptions book too! These are perennial favorites.

Super cute. Super clear. Super fun! Platform agnostic intro to stop-acti0n movie making with LEGO.

Glossy little trade paperbacks complete with fun projects, factoids, and historical notes for girls and boys. Get the entire series for your classroom library.

Glorious picture book filled with making, tinkering, and coding about a girl and the doll she upgrades to be her new friend.

Maker projects for outside by DK.

Soon-to-be-released DK project book.

Kids should learn to sew for eTextile and wearable computing projects!
Two bonus recommendations for good measure!

The cutest, most infectious read-aloud/read-along book ever!

An excellent introduction to the vast wonders of SNAP! programming.

 

 


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.

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.

I recently received interview questions by a cub reporter in the heartland. Paradoxically, the nature of the questions made answering a challenge. Here’s my attempt.

How would you define STEM education?

Quite literally, STEM is an acronym meaning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To the extent that there is anything new to be found in STEM, it is a recognition that the nature and process of both science and mathematics have changed dramatically outside of school and that educational institutions may wish to reflect such advances. The T in “Technology” is unfortunate since it really should mean computing – programming computers to create models and solve problems otherwise impossible. The “T” certainly doesn’t refer to a Thermos or Pez dispenser, arguably both less protean technologies.

The E for “Engineering” is also a new addition to the curriculum. Young children are natural engineers. They enjoy an intellectual relationship with materials, people, and even ideas. They tinker and explore. They test hypotheses and push limits. Engineering is the concrete manifestation of theoretical principles. You test a hypothesis or try something. If it works, you’re inspired to test a larger theory, ask a deeper question, decorate, refine, or improve upon your innovation. If you are unsuccessful, one must engage in the intellectually powerful process of debugging. Traditionally, the only people permitted to have engineering experiences were the students who compliantly succeeded over twelve or fourteen years of abstraction. Engineering is the dessert you enjoy after your asparagus diet of school math and science.

The addition of intensely personal and playful pursuits like computing and engineering democratized science and mathematics learning while affording children the chance to do real math and science. Students should be scientists and mathematicians, rather than be taught math or science, especially when that curricular content is increasingly irrelevant, inauthentic, and noxious.

Would you say STEM education is important? If so, why?

If the motivation for STEM is some misplaced fantasy about job preparation or STEM is merely a buzzword designed to offer an illusion of progress, than STEM is not important. If we want scientifically and numerate students, some of whom might fall in love with making sense of the universe, while recognizing the changing nature of knowledge, than STEM has intense value.

If our goals are no more ambitious than raising stupid test scores, then kids should have rich engineering and technology experiences in order to be more active learners.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram, arguably the world’s greatest living mathematical and scientist, says that for any intellectual domain, X, there is now or soon will be a branch of that discipline called, “Computational X.” That new branch of the discipline represents the vanguard of that field, the most interesting ideas, and likely the better paying jobs as well.

Should schools have STEM programs? How are they beneficial to students?

If schools are going to bother teaching what they call math and science than they should embrace the new ideas, content, and processes of STEM. It is critical to engage students in authentic experiences since Jean Piaget taught us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Schools should stop using the term “program.” Program implies a high probability of failure and therefore obscures the urgency to create a new intellectual diet for children. To the extent that one program siphons resources from another, than STEM is far less important than adequate funding for art and music education.

What does the future of STEM education look like to you?

Schools need to prepare students to solve problems that their teachers never anticipated. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the world’s least radical organization, stated that 50% of all mathematics has been invented since WW II. Let’s assume that that percentage is even higher thirty years late. None of that new mathematics made possible by computing and the social science’s demand for number can be found anywhere near a K-12 classroom and that is a sin.

New technology and materials afford us with the opportunity to not only teach kids the things we’ve always wanted them to know (regardless of merit), but for children to learn and do in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.

The better question to ask is, “Who could possibly be against STEM?”


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.

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.

What I Did on My Three Summer VacationsBy Brian Silverman
Illustrated by Peter Reynolds

Previously published in Mathematics and Informatic Quarterly (in Bulgaria) prior to this version appearing in the Fall 1998 issue of Logo Exchange. Volume 17. Number 1.

We finally did it. We made it through the maze in Montreal’s Old Port in eleven minutes. There’s a really good chance that our time is the all-time record!

It all started a few years ago when my daughter, Diana and I were biking and found ourselves in Montreal’s Old Port. There was a new attraction called S.O.S. Labyrinthe, that promised a pirate adventure. It turned out to be a giant indoor maze in an old warehouse building with a handful obstacles with a pirate theme. The “pirates” were kids on roller blades providing help to the desperately lost and confusion to the rest of us.

The maze is a twenty-by-eighty grid of about two metre squares. The walls are made of thick plastic sheets hung between poles that are placed at the grid points. Four small sections of the maze have been built up to resemble a ship’s bridge, an engine room, a cargo hold, and lockers for the crew. These four checkpoints have hidden stampers to stamp a card received when you enter the maze.This card is also time-stamped when you first enter then maze and again when you leave.

When Diana and I first tried we got lost almost immediately. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to find our way out and get all the stamps we needed. Despite being lost most of the time we enjoyed it so much that we went back the following week. This time we brought my son Eric along because he’d missed the first time through. The second time, to avoid getting lost, we decided to follow a set of simple rules that, as any little robot will tell you, can help to get you out of most mazes.

The rules are:

  1. turn right whenever you can
  2. turn around when you reach a dead end.

That’s all there is to it and it actually works. We followed the rules and managed to make it through the maze in about twenty two minutes. When we finished the pirate behind the desk put our names on the board as the group that had the best time of the day. He mentioned in passing that it was a better time than he sees most days.

The challenge at this point was obvious. Our goal was to get the best time ever. We only had to figure out how. I had a plan that I thought would be pretty simple. However, as is almost always the case, it didn’t turn out to be as simple as I’d initially imagined. The plan was this: Go through the maze twice. The first time through bring along a little computer to record our path. Then go home, draw a map, find the best route and go back the following day and go through running as fast as we can.

There were a couple of immediate problems. The first one was pretty easy to resolve. How could we be sure that the maze didn’t change on us between the first run and the second? (The plastic panels are moved on a regular basis to keep the maze from staying the same.) A couple of phone calls and oblique questions later, we’d found out that the maze is only changed once a week, on Thursday night. The second immediate problem was trickier to resolve. Our plan required little computers to record our path. We didn’t have any little computers. Even if we did we wouldn’t know how to make them record paths.

My friends at MIT had little computers. We’d been working for a few years on making “programmable LEGO bricks”. At that time we were at the point where we’d had a couple of prototypes that had worked for a bit but none of them were reliable enough for the task. However as a result of a sort of spinoff of that project there were some little computer boards around that weren’t much bigger than a deck of cards. I asked my friend Randy Sargent if I could borrow one. He mailed it to me and I had it within a few weeks. Unfortunately by then the season was over and the project would have to wait until the next summer.

During the course of the winter a couple of things happened. One was that I had a lot of fun programming the little computer board I’d received. Over Christmas I played with making a tiny version of Logo. By New Year’s we had Logo programmable LEGO robots that didn’t need to be attached to a big computer. At the same time Randy had been working on perfecting a new programmable brick. By the following summer these came together and we had a programmable brick and a logo program for saving information about where in the maze we’d been.

Little computers are pretty stupid. We would have liked to have been able to just carry one along and have it remember where it had been. But the little computer wasn’t up for the task. What we did instead was attach a couple of pushbuttons to it. One to click the number of “squares” we’d gone forward, the other to click in the amount that we’d turned at each corner.

The summer mostly slid away before we got around to trying a second run. When we did get around to it, it was just Eric and me. Before getting into the maze we’d attached the brick to his belt, run some wires up his shirt and down the sleeves to the pushbuttons in his hands. Unless you were looking hard you wouldn’t have noticed anything suspicious. We scoped out the maze counting out loud on the straightaways and yelling out directions at the corners. People looked at us a bit strangely in general and were particularly confused and curious when we had to bring out the brick for minor adjustments.

We didn’t do too well on that round. The brick started misbehaving about three quarters of the way through. And even if it hadn’t, the recorded data had lots of mistakes in it. With a lot of guessing and processing we were able to construct about a quarter of the map but no more. Since it was late summer we gave up again for the year figuring we’d pick it up again the following year.

The next winter was a good one for programmable bricks. When we did the second run there were only five working bricks in the world and even those five needed a fair amount of babysitting. By the next summer, there had been several new iterations of the design (largely the work of Fred Martin) resulting in dozens of working bricks that were solid enough that we wouldn’t have to worry too much about hardware failures for the next round.

Also, during the winter there was plenty of time to think about what went wrong the previous summer. The main problem was that mistakes in clicking the buttons led to so much distortion in the map that it was completely useless. The maze is so big, (more than a thousand straightaways and turns), that it’s impossible to do the kind of recording that we did without making mistakes. We thought a bit about eliminating mistakes but decided instead to run the experiment with several programmable bricks simultaneously, do the recording several times separately then regroup and compare results.

As it turns out, Randy and another friend, Carl Witty were planning to come to Montreal towards the end of the summer to show off their robots at an artificial intelligence conference. They arrived with a car full of computers, tools, and robot parts. Their robots all come with cameras connected to electronics that can discriminate colors. Their demos included robots chasing balls and each other at high speeds. It seemed only natural to get them involved in the third round.

We had a lot of discussion about whether or not we could use the vision systems they had in their robots for more automatic data gathering. We decided not to because even if we could resolve all the computer issues, we weren’t sure that we had enough batteries for all of the needed electronics for the time it’d take. We did decide, however, that since they had brought along several miniature cameras we’d take a video record of first trip through and use that to help interpret the data we’d get from the computers.

Carrying a camera around a maze really didn’t seem subtle enough. Instead we took the camera and sewed it into a hat with only the lens sticking out the front. The camcorder fit neatly in a backpack. By the time we were ready to go, Carl, Randy and I each had a programmable brick rubber banded to our belts and Eric had a camera in his hat. The data gathering run took about two hours and was pretty boring. The bricks kept disagreeing with each other but we ignored this because we decided to sort it all out later. Eric, originally worried that he’d attract too much attention with the camera ended up not being able to convince anyone that he actually had one.

We brought the electronics home, dumped the data to three separate laptop computers and then spent an evening that didn’t quite turn into an all nighter trying to make some sense of it. For hours there was Randy, Carl, and I each with our own computer bouncing sequence numbers, grid locations, and reports of similarities and differences in data between us. My wife Erlyne and the kids watched for some of this, enjoyed part of the video but abandoned us when it seemed that we’d really fallen off the deep end. We persisted and after spending some time getting a feel for the method to the madness we decided to systemically play through the video noting when everything looked to be working and stopping the tape and fudging when it didn’t. Our stamina ran out before the tape did and we gave up for the night with about three quarters of the map in place.

The next morning, we all felt refreshed and raring to go. In less that two hours the printer was churning out copies of a complete maze map . We were about to set off when Eric asked why each of us had to go to get stamps at each of the places rather than splitting up the job. We realized pretty quickly that he had a point. There was a rule against going through the walls. There wasn’t a rule against the cards with the stamps going through the walls. It took us about a half an hour of staring at the map and thinking to come up with a plan that involved three teams and three relay points to pass the cards along like a baton in a relay race. Eric and I had the first stretch, passed the cards to Randy and then headed off to where Randy would pass them back after having met Carl twice along the way.

It all worked like clockwork. The maps were accurate, the plan workable. Eric and I had the first stamp in less that two minutes and found Randy in another two. When we called him through the plastic wall he didn’t answer but his hand appeared. He said later that a pirate was standing right beside and he was trying to not attract any attention. After the handoff we headed to the final relay point where we met up with Carl and got the cards through the wall from Randy. From there it was just a quick run to the end to get the last time stamp. It had taken eleven minutes, much less time than we had imagined possible.

We went to see the pirate at the desk. The board of daily winners wasn’t around any more. We showed him our card that confirmed that we’d done it in eleven minutes. He said that if we did it that fast we must have cheated. Maybe it’s true. Throwing that much technology at a problem may be cheating. On the other hand, it may just be another way of solving it


About the author

Since the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has been involved in the invention of learning environments for children. His work includes dozens of Logo versions (including LogoWriter & MicroWorlds), Scratch, LEGO robotics, TurtleArt and the PicoCricket. Brian is a Consulting Scientist to the MIT Media Lab, enjoys recreational math, and is a computer scientist and master tinkerer. He once built a tictactoe-playing computer out of TinkerToys. Brian is a longtime faculty member of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

You can also visit Brian’s Wikipedia page here.

About the illustrator

Peter H. Reynolds co-founded FableVision, Inc., in 1996 and serves as its Chairman. Mr. Reynolds produces award-winning children’s broadcast programming, educational videos and multimedia applications at FableVision, Inc. He served as Vice President and Creative Director of Tom Snyder Productions for 13 years.

He is also an accomplished writer, storyteller and illustrator, and gets his enthusiasm and energy to every project he creates. His bestselling books about protecting and nurturing the creative spirit include The Dot, Ish, and So Few of Me (Candlewick Press). His cornerstone work, The North Star (FableVision), The SugarLoaf book series (Simon & Schuster), My Very Big Little World and The Best Kid in the World, are the first of Peter’s many books about an irrepressible little girl who sees the world through creative-colored glasses. He has recently co-authored several popular books with his twin brother, Paul.

The film version of The Dot (Weston Woods) went on to win the American Library Association’ (ALA’s) Carnegie Medal of Excellence for the Best Children’s Video of 2005 and the film version of Ish was announced as one of ALA’s 2006 Notable Children’s Videos. His other series of original, animated film shorts, including The Blue Shoe, Living Forever and He Was Me, have won many awards and honors around the globe.

Peter’s award-winning publishing work also includes illustrating New York Times1 Best Seller children’s book, Someday (Simon & Schuster), written by Alison McGhee – a “storybook for all ages.” He illustrated the New York Times best-selling Judy Moody series (Candlewick) written by Megan McDonald, Eleanor Estes’ The Alley and The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, Judy Blume’s Fudge series (Dutton), and Ellen Potter’s Olivia Kidney books

Peter Reynolds was a guest speaker at the 1st and 10th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

The world lost a remarkable educator on June 22, 2017 when Dr. Robert Tinker passed away at the age of 75.

If your students have ever worked on a collaborative online project, taken a virtual class, used a science probe, played The Zoombinis, or used any terrific materials created by TERC or The Concord Consortium, Bob is the reason why.

A gifted scientist, Bob was brilliant, kind, patient, joyous, and generous. Like our mutual friend, Seymour Papert, Bob spent his life helping others to learn and love science and math just as much as he did. He possessed the rare empathy that allowed him to wonder why others might not learn this or that as naturally or easily as he did. Rather than blame or shame learners, Bob designed tools not to teach, but for learning. At Seymour Papert’s memorial celebration, Tod Machover quoted Papert as saying, “Everyone needs a prosthetic.” Bob Tinker was in the business of creating remarkable prosthetics useful for embracing the wonders of scientific inquiry.

I just learned that Bob fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Alabama, just as Papert did in South Africa. This news came as no surprise.

“My Dad was the probably the smartest man I knew (MIT PhD), and he decided to pass on earning a big salary with a Defense Contractor in order to positively impact change. With my mom at his side, during the civil rights movement they moved to the South to teach at a University that could hardly afford textbooks. They marched in dangerous areas. They worked to expose climate change. They personally funded the arts and those less fortunate. They then built the two largest science/match educational non-profits in the USA. The two NGOs employ hundreds, have trained thousands of teachers, and have educated millions of kids.” (Bob’s daughter, Facebook, June 22)

A life well lived… Online, Bob’s friends remember him as a mensch.

Long before politicians and hucksters began alarming the citizenry about the need to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) subjects as a vulgar ticket to careers, real or imagined, Bob Tinker created tools and technology that not only raised the standards for student participation in those fields, but did so in a progressive constructivist context. Not only didn’t his approach to S.T.E.M. exceed empty rhetoric and vocabulary acquisition, Bob’s work brought a broad spectrum of modern scientific domains to life in classrooms. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, earth science, electronics, engineering, and computational thinking were all in the mix.

Dr. Tinker delighting in a teacher’s scientific discovery

One could make a compelling argument that Bob Tinker is the father of S.T.E.M. However, I think of him as the Thomas Edison of S.T.E.M. Beyond his remarkable academic preparation, Bob was not resigned to a life of writing pretentious papers to be published in overpriced conference proceedings read by six colleagues. While there was nobody better at writing successful grant proposals, Bob and his colleagues had a stunning track record of “commercializing” their ideas. At both TERC, where he was Director of Educational Technology and The Concord Consortium he founded, Bob Tinker personified Edison’s notion of research AND development. An idea could be tested, refined, manufactured, and distributed in a reasonable timeframe. Unlike so many researchers cloistered in university departments and think tanks, Bob and his colleagues turned ideas into actual products enjoyed by millions of students around the world. Like Edison, Dr. Tinker didn’t work alone. He assembled and led an incredibly competent band of “muckers” who could bring impossible ideas to life.

Those products were sound, timely, reliable, open-ended, fun and teachable without succumbing to “teacher proofing” or dumbing down the science. There was never anything condescending about Dr. Tinker’s prolific work. Bob’s considerable charm and passion undoubtedly played a role in the creation of public/private partnerships, including with The National Geographic and Broderbund, required to successfully distribute his inventions to classrooms and homes everywhere. Bob was also a pioneer in making powerful software tools freely available online. He also preceded the DIY ethos of the maker movement by advocating for the creation of one’s own science probes in 2007!

In Bob’s world, there was no reason to add an A for Arts to S.T.E.M., since the doing of science and mathematics was itself, beautiful, wondrous, playful, creative, and relevant. Papert and Tinker shared a desire for children to be mathematicians and scientists, rather than being taught math or science. They both worked to make complexity possible by making the frontiers of mathematics and science accessible and usable by children. Bob went a step further and created programs where students could collaborate with scientists online as colleagues back in 1989, two years before the World Wide Web was released to the public. My fourth grade class participated in the National Geographic Kids Network Acid Rain project back in 1990.

In an interview Bob said:

“I became inspired to teach by tutoring two kids for two years in a black college in the South. It was the best education (for me!) anyone could design because it showed me exactly how science education could reach far more learners. I’ve dedicated my life to realizing that dream and it’s been wonderful working with smart people who share that dedication. There’s always been a sense of mission. We make important advances that will affect kids all over the world and—this was my initial motivation—bring cutting-edge educational resources to under-resourced kids.”

On a personal note

I do not remember exactly when I first met Bob Tinker, but it was at a conference approximately thirty years ago. Back then, the smartest people in the world spoke at educational computing conferences. I was familiar with his work prior to meeting him. In fact, I was a big fan of The Science Toolkit, distributed by home recreational software publisher, Broderbund. The Science Toolkit was a low-cost ($79 master module with two probes and $39 add-on sets) software package with external sensors that plugged into the joystick port of a microcomputer to allow children to conduct, measure, and record science experiments at home. This was an example of what Bob pioneered and called Micro-Based Labs (MBL).

Check out the video clip from the Christmas 1983 episode of the PBS show Computer Chronicles. Note how clean and simple the software it is and compare it some of the probeware software sold to schools today.

Prior to meeting Bob, I owned my own Science Toolkit. I was especially pleased with myself for figuring out how to program LogoWriter to read data from the kit’s probes without using the accompanying software. I could now write my own programs for collecting data, graphing it, and controlling my own experiments. I nailed using the light sensor, but my temperature data I received wasn’t particularly accurate. I eventually rationalized this as being the fault of the sensor or based on the limitations of the Science Toolkit, despite the fact that the probe worked just fine with the software provided. 

Not much time passed before I ran into Bob Tinker in one of those “V.I.P.” receptions, in the crummy “suite” of the conference chair in the forgettable hotel where the conference was being held. As I told Bob about my struggles with temperature data, he grabbed a napkin and wrote calculus formulas across all of the quadrants of the unfolded napkin. Bob mentioned that reading the temperature data was non-linear, a concept this C- science student could vaguely comprehend. While I never figured out how to translate the napkin math to a working LogoWriter program, Bob’s good cheer, gentle mentoring, and generosity reminded meow something I wrote in an essay a couple of years ago, “Math teachers often made me feel stupid; mathematicians never did.”

Maria Knee & Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

When I started the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute for educators ten years ago, Bob was the first speaker I secured. He had agreed  to return in a few weeks to help us celebrate our 10th anniversary this July.

I will never forget the joy he brought to kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, Maria Knee, who was euphoric while manipulating molecules in software Bob created (The Molecular Workbench). He and his colleagues made the impossible accessible to generations of teachers and children.

I am gutted by Bob’s passing. Losing Bob, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, and Edith Ackermann within an 18-month period is almost too painful to bear. They were fountains of powerful ideas extinguished in anti-intellectual age hostile to science, even wonder. The education community does not enjoy a proud record of honoring the contributions of its pioneers or standing on their shoulders. Instead we continuously rediscover that which already exists, without attribution and with diminished expectations.

More than twenty-five years ago, Seymour Papert and Bob Tinker led a crazy or courageous session at the National Educational Computing Conference in Boston. If memory serves me, the presentation had a title along the lines of “Enemies of Constructionism.” I remember them taking turns placing acetates on the overhead projector proclaiming the name and photo of one of their enemies, including their NSF project manager who happened to be in the audience. This session had to be Seymour’s idea because Bob was too nice, but I suspect that Bob wrote the proposal.

I considered Bob a friend and dear colleague, even though we never really hung out or worked together formally. We often discussed collaborating on an elementary school project of some sort even though Bob modestly claimed not to know anything about little kids. Less than a year ago, Bob introduced me to a colleague and recommended that I be an advisor for an NSF proposal. I was honored to be asked and the grant* has been funded. While searching my email database, I found another proposal Bob himself included me in eleven years ago. I am humbled by his faith in me and respect for my work.

I wonder if ISTE will honor Bob in any way or if they even know who he is? I still await even a tweet about the passing of Dr. Papert. Like Papert, Bob Tinker was never invited to be a keynote speaker at ISTE or its predecessor, NECC.

Rest-in-power Bob. We will miss you forever and the struggle against ignorance continues!


Seminal articles by Robert Tinker, Ph.D.

Read more by searching for Tinker.

The Concord Consortium is assembling a collection of tributes to Bob Tinker here.

Read Bob Tinker’s Wikipedia page.

Notes

* Read the text of the funded NSF proposal, Science and Engineering Education for Infrastructure Transformation.