Several years ago I helped design a fantastic project-based peer-teaching program, TechYes!, for my friends at Generation YES! TechYes!, was in an anticipation of the terrible standardized tests that were likely to dominate the quest for “measuring” student “tech skills” or “tech literacy.”

Where is the List of Tech Skills?
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
© 2004 Generation YES!

Some educators looking at TechYes! may be wondering where the publisher hid the list of technology skills every eighth grader should master. Look no further. There is no such checklist.

Politicians and textbook publishers impose lists of curricular objectives on teachers and they in turn burden kids with a mountain of requirements that must be satisfied. Assumptions are made about teacher competence and their ability to assess student needs and accomplishments. Such checklists diminish classroom creativity and undermine teacher professionalism.

TechYes! believes that professional teachers are best suited to make decisions regarding the educational needs of their students. No rubric can replace a teacher with an intimate knowledge of his/her students. Peer editing and collaboration contributes to a productive learning context for students and frees teachers from extra marking. TechYes! models and embraces peer editing in an authentic context.

Curriculum, by its very nature attempts to design a sequence of activities and objectives broad enough to address a wide audience. The individual needs, experience and fluency of students are often lost in the anonymity of textbooks. All of Generation Yes’ programs celebrate the talents and potential of each child.

There remains much incongruity between our rhetoric and our teaching practice. Adults boast routinely of how “children are so competent with technology,” how “they know so much more than us – are more confident, fluent, knowledgeable.” Then we treat them as, well, children incapable of finding the return key or saving a file without our intervention.

Tech skills are like a camel, a horse designed by committee. Traditional approaches to computer literacy instruction diminish the intellectual and creative potential of this most powerful knowledge machine. When faced with the challenge of preparing students to be technologically literate by the end of eighth grade teams of well-meaning adults embarked on a process of determining what an eighth grader should know. This inevitably leads to the construction of a bottomless pit of arcane tech skills in checklist form.

Schools have the option of purchasing curriculum that turns using scrollbars into a four-year scope and sequence. Proclamations that all children will use a mouse leads to the inevitable questions, “one or two button?” “With or without a scrollbar?” Worst of all, such curricular approaches are needlessly technocentric. The focus is on the learning of isolated tech skills rather than on the application of tech skills to learn everything else.

Put away your number two pencils. TechYes! offers an important alternative.

Rubrics offer students a minimum standard they must transcend to satisfy someone else’s assignment. TechYes! students demonstrate technological fluency by constructing personally meaningful projects. These projects value audience and purpose, a quality lacking in more traditional forms of assessment.

I fully anticipate that TechYes! projects will exceed the modest expectations of No Child Left Behind and the ISTE NETs. Many will be creative, complex and inspirational. Most of all, I hope the projects will be useful. When concerned with educational excellence, I always bet on kids.

Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)

Rocco Patierno & George Hicswa - July 2010

The challenge of telling one school story is a formidable one. I have so many to share. My colleagues urged me to tell the stories of the felonious teachers who taught from lawn chairs, led ethnic relay races and committed other hideous crimes against children. I could also tell the story of learning to love computing in the 70s because of imaginative trusting educators. Hopefully, I will have such opportunities in the future. This is the tale of music teachers who brought beauty, humor and a sense of place to my life.

Back in the 1970s, the Wayne, NJ Public Schools offered me the opportunity to fall in love with music and pursue it with abandon under the tutelage of spectacular teachers, Bob Simpson, Rocco Patierno, Ted Anderson, George Hicswa and Dick Lukas. Our fluid relationships flowed

from teacher-student, teacher-teacher, friend-friend to fellow artists creating together. My high school supported my desire to take four years of music theory and four years of performance classes (nine in all) without missing a single “important” academic course.

Midway through high school, George Hicswa, a professional jazz musician, achieved his goal of offering a daily Jazz Improvisation course. The class would be concerned with jazz theory, history and performance. Few universities at the time offered such a class. This was the perfect venue for a man of Mr Hicswa’s considerable idiosyncrasies, humor and talent as a musician. This class was quite comparable to the Brazilian Samba School Seymour Papert describes in Mindstorms, as an optimal environment for productive learning.

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The thing that strikes me today is how the course was so learner-centered. I remember the excitement of calling classmates on Sunday night to plan which records we should bring in to analyze on Monday and Tuesday. At the time we joked that Mr. Hicswa was lazy and that we were teaching his class. I now understand that a great teacher connects his/her wisdom and experience with the interests of students. We always felt that there was great gravity to the work we were doing in this class. After all, we were studying an American art form not taught in American schools. This was a music of the blues – of the struggle for civil rights, being performed reverently by white kids from the suburbs.

The course epitomized an interdisciplinary curriculum making connections between history, musical performance and the mathematics used to learn improvisation. It was a multi-age class you could take for credit year after year. How could that be possible? Because there was always something to learn and new ways to grow. A strong community of practice existed in which we could learn by “playing” together.

I remember the shock on the faces of judges as we took the stage for a jazz competition (one of those obscene oxymorons invented by schools). We would follow paramilitary “stage bands” wearing white platform suits and zoot suits as they faithfully recreated “In the Mood.” The stage band is a musical amalgamation with no analog outside of school.

Our small jazz combo would be garbed in dashikis, kimonos and “bebop helmets.” I once performed on gong. Our repertoire consisted of works by Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, John Coltrane and student composers. We honored ourselves and our musical heroes by sharing our individuality through collective improvisation.

It was never clear if Mr. Hicswa liked teaching or even liked children. What he loved were musicians – even people trying to become musicians. He created an environment in which personal growth was possible. For that I will always be grateful.


©1999 Gary S. Stager
From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 1999

I go back a long way with Generation YES, I used to read Dennis Harper‘s articles in The International Logo Exchange journal back in the 1980s before he contributed articles when I became Editor of Logo Exchange in the early 1990s. He brought microcomputers to schools in dozens of developing countries, had taught all over the world and was one of the earliest promoters of microcomputers in education

While Dennis was leaving his last school district position and transitioning the successful Federal Challenge Grant, Generation WHY, into a company, Generation YES, I suggested that he hire my partner Sylvia Martinez to help make the trains run on time. Sylvia is now the President of Generation YES.

Since that time I have worked on various projects with Generation YES, including a science and technology improvement project in Brooklyn, NY and as one of the designers of TechYES, the ground-breaking peer-to-peer technology literacy certification program.

TechYES

While giant testing companies sell multiple-choice tests challenging students to identify the parts of a computer – cassette drive, floppy disk, dot-matrix printer – as a way to satisfy the NCLB 8th grade tech literacy requirement and ISTE standards, TechYES starts from the premise that children are competent and can demonstrate their technological fluency through the creation of personallly meaningful projects that impress their peer mentors.

There are very few companies outside of the members of The Contructivist Consortium committed to student empowerment, creativity, collaboration and computing. It is much easier to sell products that do things to students, rather than amplify their voice and  potential. Generation YES is the rare exception.

I recently found a VHS tape about Generation WHY that includes a stunning appearance by my friend, colleague and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert, saying some very flattering things about what is now known as Generation YES and their educational approach to 21st Century student empowerment, leadership and service.

The short video clip below is well worth watching. You might even take a look at Generation YES and TechYES.

Incidentally, the host of the 1998 video (below) is now serving in the Peace Corps in Africa.

Seymour Papert on Generation YES and Kid Power from Gary Stager on Vimeo.


Related articles by Dr. Seymour Papert