Candidly, I have not been enthusiastic about teaching “computational thinking” to kids. In nearly every case, computational thinking seemed to be a dodge intended to avoid computing, specifically computer programming.

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

(Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Programming is an incredibly powerful context for learning mathematics while engaged in being a mathematician. If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a great way to make mathematics.

Most of the examples of computational thinking I’ve come across seemed like a cross between “Computer Appreciation” and “Math Appreciation.” However, since smart people were taking “computational thinking” more seriously, I spent a great deal of time thinking about a legitimate case for it in the education of young people.

Here it is…

Computational thinking is useful when modeling a system or complex problem is possible, but the programming is too difficult.

Examples will be shared in other venues.

Will Richardson wrote a nice blog post, “The Thin Value of Proposition,” in which he argues that the true value in education is the relationship between teachers and students. Good point.

One of his commenters, Tony Baldasaro, a good guy, argued that teachers can be freed-up to individualize instruction if the curriculum and assessment is standardized for them. He called this the “upside of standardizing curriculum.”
“By taking the burden of lesson planning and assessment creation for all students at once away from the teacher, administrators can empower teachers to individualize instruction for every student.”
I like Tony and he is well-intentioned, but I could not disagree more. The way in which he articulated his argument really provoked me to write about some ideas I’ve been playing with for a long time. I hope you will give them some consideration.
Tony,I would argue that the mess we’re in is largely the result of twenty years of thinking like you describe. Reducing teachers to technicians who may make decisions about individualizing instruction for each student is impossible since agency to make larger decisions has been steadily robbed from teachers, along with an ability to fight the forces deskilling them. Teachers incapable of deciding what to teach will be less capable of determining how to teach. There is no pedagogical change or dramatic shift in student outcomes possible without an ability to change the intellectual diet provided for children.

Papert used to say that School at best teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is most important – the piece we have always taught. Take mathematics for example, the curriculum and pedagogical approach has remained constant since the Inquisition, despite dramatic societal shifts and the revolutionary impact of computers in real mathematics, not the BS served up in school. Teachers can either be experts in the true nature of mathematics, it’s beauty and power or devise little tricks to make a toxic curriculum a tad less poisonous. The result of that decision creates a scenario where we teach “Algebra in Utero,” pushing it down a grade level constantly while NAEP scores remain stagnant.

I want children to have teachers who can see a flower, read a short story or use a newspaper article as the basis for connecting lots of disciplines and powerful ideas at any moment to create rich rewarding learning contexts for children.

I’m in Krakow, Poland right now and am staying across the street from sort of school. I walked by today and heard children singing along to a song being played on the piano by their teacher. I don’t hear a lot of singing in American classrooms these days.

I became an elementary school teacher at the very end of the era when you needed to learn how to play the piano a tiny bit, teach PE, harvest meal worms and make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes. We were explicitly talked about how if we saw educational value in playing Scrabble for three months, how to identify the educational objectives being met and write them in our plan book.

For generations, THAT was a teacher. Why do we ask so little of them today?

When I walk into classrooms, rich and poor – private and public, around the world today I see a remarkable return to whole class instruction. Gone are the projects, centers and other joyful spaces for becoming lost in one’s own learning. This sad reality may be the result of changing the definition of teaching to the delivery of curriculum and management of classrooms.

The elaborate ruse called differentiated instruction is only necessary because the curriculum is handed down to teachers on stone tablets. If the educators closest to children had the greatest voice in curricular decisions, individualization would be natural.

Gary Stager

Dr. Lilian Katz, a pioneer in the “project approach” to teaching and learning, will be a guest speaker at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012, July 9-12, 2012 in Manchester, NH!

Dr. Katz’s expertise in early childhood education learning through project work will make a significant contribution to CMK 2012. Register today and learn with a world-class faculty and amazing guest speakers, award-winning filmmaker Casey Neistat; MIT Media Lab professor and Lilypad Arudino inventor, Dr. Leah Beuchley; Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-Chief of Make Magazine, Founder of BoingBoing.net and author of Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World and Super Awesome Sylvia.

About Lilian Katz, Ph.D.
Lilian G. Katz is Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) where she is currently on the staff of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting (CEEP). Dr. Katz is a Past President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the first President of the Illinois Association for the Education of Young Children. Dr. Katz is currently Editor of the first on-line peer reviewed trilingual early childhood journal, Early Childhood Research & Practice (English, Spanish & Chinese).

Professor Katz is author of more than one hundred publications including articles, chapters, books, pamphlets, etc., about early childhood education, teacher education, child development, and parenting of young children.  For thirteen years she wrote a monthly column for parents of three- and four-year-olds for Parents Magazine.

Dr. Katz was founding editor of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, and served as its Editor-in-Chief during its first six years.  Her most recent book (co-authored with J. H. Helm) is Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years.  Her book titled Talks with Teachers of Young Children (1995) is a collection of her best known early essays and several more recent ones. In 2000 she published the second edition of Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach, co-authored with S. C. Chard. It has been translated into several languages, as have many of her other works.

Dr. Katz has lectured in all 50 US states and in 55 other countries. She has held visiting posts at universities in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, India, Israel, the West Indies (Barbados campus) and many parts of the USA.  Dr. Katz is the recipient of many honors, including two Fulbright Awards (India & New Zealand), an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree (DLitt.) from Whittier College, Whittier, California and an honorary Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Goteborg in Sweden. In 1997 she served as Nehru Professor at the University of Baroda in India.

Professor Katz, was born and raised in England and became a US citizen in 1953. She received her B.A. degree cum laude from San Francisco State University (1964) and her Ph.D. in Psychological Studies & Education from Stanford University in 1968. She and her late husband Boris Katz have three grown children, five grandsons and one granddaughter.

 


Mark Fraunfelder

The Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012 program is shaping up to be better than ever before. In addition to our amazing faculty of edtech pioneers and world-class educators, CMK 2012 features:

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator living in Los Angeles. He is Editor-in-Chief of MAKE Magazine, the cofounder of the popular Boing Boing weblog and was an editor at Wired from 1993-1998. He is the author of terrific books, including: Rule the Web: How to Do Anything and Everything on the Internet—Better, Faster, Easier, The Happy Mutant Handbook, Mad Professor: Concoct Extremely Weird Science Projects and his latest, Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. Mark Frauenfelder is at the vanguard of the exploding world of DIY and tinkering. He brings a wealth of expertise as an artist, Web pioneer, author, publisher and parent. Check out the following videos to learn more about his work and the expertise he brings to Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Register for CMK 2012 today!

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mark Frauenfelder
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mark Frauenfelder
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Read Mark Fraunfelder's latest book!

Register for CMK 2012 today!

In addition to the keynote addresses, presentation topics and workshops offered here, I have created new hands-on minds-on workshops for the coming school year.


Invent to Learn

Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving where computing meets tinkering and performance. A secret yet timeless curricular theme will be unveiled Iron Chef-style. Participants will work with a variety of software, hardware and found materials in four domains (virtual, tactile, audio and video) to express the theme in a personal fashion. The day’s intensity will lead to impressive gains in skill development and a greater understanding of effective project-based learning. Computer programming, filmmaking, animation, audio production, robotics and engineering are all on the menu. Bring a laptop and camera or video camera We’ll supply the rest. Invention is the mother of learning!

For information about booking Gary Stager for a conference keynote, school workshop or consulting services, email here. Gary’s bio may be found here.


Electrifying Children’s Mathematics
There may be no greater gap between a discipline and the teaching done in its name than when the beauty, power and mystery of mathematics becomes math instruction. One can only begin to address the systemic challenges of math education by understanding the nature of mathematics. Nearly 100 years of efforts to increase achievement with unchanged curricular content continues to fail spectacularly; yet, we do not change course. This workshops moves beyond the goal of making math instruction engaging to providing educators with authentic mathematical thinking experiences. Such experiences acknowledge the role computers play in mathematics and society’s increasing demand for computational thinking. Project-based approaches with mathematics at the center of the activity will be explored. Traditional concepts such as numeracy, geometry, probability and graphing will be investigated in addition to exciting new branches of mathematics rarely found in the primary grades.

This workshop is designed for teachers of grades 3-8. It may also be offered as an ongoing course with a greater emphasis on curriculum development and action research.

For information about booking Gary Stager for a conference keynote, school workshop or consulting services, email here. Gary’s bio may be found here.

 

How to Teach with Computers
This hands-on minds-on workshop helps expand your vision of how computers may be used in knowledge construction while exploring pedagogical strategies for creating rich computing experiences that amplify the potential of each learner. Mini activities model sound project-based learning principles and connect various disciplines across multiple grade levels.

Longer description
Modern schools face several challenges; among them are the questions at the heart of this workshop. Once teachers are finally convinced to use computers as instruments for learning, do they have creative project ideas and do they possess the pedagogical skills necessary for success?

This minds-on hands-on workshop will feature mini-projects designed to nurture sophisticated inquiry, computational thinking and artistic expression across disciplines and grade levels. The presenter will also discuss pedagogical strategies for using computers in an effective fashion as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. These strategies illuminate principles of sound project-based learning and honor the individual learning styles, talents, curiosity and intensity of each student.

Dr. Gary Stager has thirty years of experience helping educators maximize the potential of computers and create productive contexts for learning on six continents. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, created one of the first online Masters degree programs and was recently recognized by Tech & Learning Magazine as one of today’s 30 most influential educators.

Dear School Leaders and Policy Makers:

Our university used to boast of a 100% job placement rate for MA students with a freshly minted teaching credential. The Class of 2010 faced nearly 100% unemployment. A remarkable portion of each of my recent pre-service class sessions was dedicated to questions of employment and unemployment. That’s a shame since the only thing bigger than these wannabe teachers’ graduate school debt is their desire to improve the lives of children. Despite the wholesale debasing of teachers by the media, foundations and political leaders, I am inspired by anyone who still wants to teach and am honored to help them develop.

Apprenticeship is a powerful way to learn. That’s why future doctors and teachers intern before being credentialed. The theoretical principle at work is that you learn best through the careful emulation, collaboration and supervision of a master practitioner. I remain staggered by the remarkable impact of student teaching on candidates – for good and bad. It does not matter what my colleagues or I teach in the ivory tower of academia. Those techniques, learning theories, even deeply held values might be shelved within days of becoming a student teacher. This is commonplace when student teachers apprentice with the best educators. The results are more catastrophic when assigned to less competent, generous or inspirational teachers.

A few of my student teachers report being paired with teachers who are hostile, mean or sleepwalking. That’s unfortunate, but not half as tragic as the lessons newbies are learning from the “good” well-intentioned teachers and principals. What are young teachers expected to learn from what they observe in today’s public schools? Are good teachers being required to behave in miseducative ways based on directives from school administrators?

Here are just a few of the common scenarios being reported from the field.

  1. I asked several dozen California student teachers, “Tell me about science instruction in your school?” The nearly unanimous response was that elementary science education is a lot like Big Foot. Teachers have heard it exists, just never seen it for themselves. The Sasquatch Effect may also be applied to art, music, drama, social studies or any other meaningful pursuit not reduced to a standardized test. The innate curiosity of young children is being squelched while learning is supplanted by being taught or worse – prepped. An archaeologist would be required to find evidence of thematic units, classroom learning centers, experiments or authentic project-based learning.
  2. Principals evaluate teacher efficacy based on the volume of their students. Students are taught to be quiet, compliant and work in isolation. Elaborate time-consuming systems are enforced for eating lunch in silence, walking down the hall and playing only with children in your own class, if your school is liberal enough to still condone recess. There is zero tolerance for joy, conflict, exuberance or the expression of any other human emotion. We then have the audacity to pretend that one of the benefits of schooling is socialization. Right, anti-socialization.
  3. Math and language arts instruction has been reduced to teachers delivering a script and students chanting. Neither teacher nor student is privy to the secret logic of the seemingly infinite and random list of concepts and skills being “covered” in preparation for the test. Second graders are forced to solve worksheet problems concerning half-dollar coins even if you can’t remember the last time you saw one in circulation and the chincy manipulative kit does not include them. That’s OK, because tomorrow’s lesson will be on perimeter or from the new “algebra in-utero” curriculum. Nothing connects. There is no big picture. There’s just more instruction, more quizzes, more tests and less learning.
  4. Reading is reduced to mechanical acts or a prelude to comprehension tests. Classrooms are devoid of books, except for the basal that interrupts each boring paragraph with a quiz and compels every child to read the same thing at the same rate, regardless of their ability. Strong early readers endure years of needless phonics instruction just because while struggling readers are poked, prodded and drilled. Students receive “credit” for books they race through, but only if the school purchased the computerized quiz for that title. Reading for pleasure, information or any other intrinsic reason has gone the way of butter churning. It’s now an unpleasant unrewarding chore without the yummy creaminess. Yet, in the golden age of publishing and dynamism of the information age, we pretend to be mystified by illiteracy and low rates of independent reading.
  5. Not only has the standardization of curriculum begot test-prep and boredom, but “pacing” is its toxic spawn. Teachers are not only forced to pretend that every student is “keeping up” with whatever the pacing guide throws at them, but students are forbidden from “going ahead.” My student teachers report that teachers are punishing kids for going ahead of the sacred lesson. Some teachers make these students sit in isolation outside of the classroom if they have the audacity to express understanding of what they are being taught. Make no mistake, this obscene teaching practice is a form of child abuse and demonstrates that teachers, even the best intentioned ones suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. At best, this phenomenon demonstrates that a primary lesson of contemporary schooling is helplessness. If you act helpless, your teachers will teach that lesson to their students.

Where will one find creative teachers when agency is deprived and compliance celebrated? Every subject at every grade level could be taught in conjunction with a current event like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but by whom? When?

Five years from now, will any teachers know how to seize the teachable moment and build upon student interest or connect the curriculum to the world outside of the school?

I realize that politicians and the media are kicking your ass, but it is morally reprehensible for you to compel teachers to behave in ways that harm or inhibit the natural potential of children. Invoking the Nuremberg Defense is unacceptable. Who will stand up for the children? For your profession? For what is right?

Let’s imagine that non-traditional paths like Teach-for-America are effective and recruit the best and brightest university graduates as they promise. How many of these teacher candidates would be willing to suspend their own expression what they know about learning and allow academic content to be forced through the narrowness of the standardized curriculum?

What would you have me say to the young teacher who chokes up and testifies, “I don’t want to become like that?” (referring to the terrorized, risk-adverse, authoritarians she sees in schools as a result of the high-stakes accountability movement)

Why should a young teacher work for you? After you remove all joy, creativity, freedom and individuality from education, who will teach your child?

Some of the best minds and accomplished innovators in education are gathering at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2010, July 12-15, 2010 in Manchester, NH. Popular author, researcher and fearless provocateur Alfie Kohn, was a guest speaker at the inaugural event in 2008 and will be with us again.

To help spread the word, we have posted several compelling clips from Alfie’s last conversation at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

There is still plenty of time to register for the best professional learning event of the year. Where else can you engage in conversations with the likes of Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, James Loewen or Peter Reynolds and design exciting creative high-tech projects with support from Sylvia Martinez, Brian Silverman, Gary Stager and John Stetson? Exciting social events are planned as well!

Don’t miss out!

Register

On last night’s edition of Real Time with Bill Maher, the political comedian took on the recent rash of teacher firings as a solution to all of our nation’s education problems. (Read complete text)

While I disagree with some of Maher’s conclusions and the “evidence” he cites, he must be applauded for challenging the “magical thinking” required to believe that firing “bad” teachers will magically transform the system.

The free market is not going to solve our educational issues, especially when poverty is the single greatest predictor of educational attainment!

Where are all of the “great” teachers to come from? There are major US cities without a supermarkets or movie theater. Who is going to build all of the fabulous private, I mean charter, schools to occupy those communities and rescue the children who don’t look like us from the grasps of the evil teachers who are deliberately suppressing standardized testing scores?

Who wishes to teach in joyless schools jerked around by political whim or in which the curriculum is scripted and interactions with students are micromanaged?

Yes, America has found its new boogeyman to blame for our crumbling educational system. It’s just too easy to blame the teachers, what with their cushy teachers’ lounges, their fat-cat salaries, and their absolute authority in deciding who gets a hall pass. We all remember high school – canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy. Take that, Mrs. Crabtree! And guess what? We’re chewing gum and no, we didn’t bring enough for everybody…

…Firing all the teachers may feel good – we’re Americans, kicking people when they’re down is what we do – but it’s not really their fault.

Bill Maher, March 12, 2010

Fast forward to the 2:27 mark in the YouTube video below to hear what Maher has to say about the despicable recent Newsweek cover urging the wholesale firing of American public school teachers. The video is a lot more entertaining than the text AND it’s may not be suitable for children or the workplace.

If the video above doesn’t work, try this clip below. The teacher stuff starts immediately.

Note: As time permits, I’m republishing articles I’ve written in the past so they may reach a fresh new audience via my blog. I’m particularly proud of this paper about teacher professional development, originally published in 1992. I wrote this after spending more than two years working in “1:1 schools.” You may just find it timely today!

COMBATTING THE OSMOSIS MYTH – A REALISTIC APPROACH TO STAFF DEVELOPMENT AND EDUCATIONAL CHANGE
© 1992 Gary S. Stager*

Many educational leaders and policy makers have grand visions of how computer technology will lead to educational innovation and restructuring. Unfortunately, in 1993 far too many of these people believe that the technology will do the job alone.

If staff development is provided, it is too often superficial and unsuccessful. Teachers and their students may be “using computers” but to what end? What has the computer’s impact been on the learning culture of a school? Is the school any closer to their goal of improving education and institutional change or has the introduction of technology created a foggy detour on the road to innovation? The hard part of this process is not the learning the technology, but thinking about thinking and learning; reflecting on the nature of the curricula; and clearly articulating a collegial strategy for implementing change. Computer-based staff development efforts often assume that teachers need to be only computer literate enough to unjam the printer or to use one piece of “canned software” with their students. This line of reasoning deprives teachers of the types of intellectual empowerment, which their students experience when using the computer as a vehicle for constructing knowledge.

School districts often believe that teachers will begin making computers important well-integrated tools in their classrooms if they attend a two-hour workshop or stand in the computer lab while the computer teacher instructs their class. This is part of what I call “the osmosis effect” Just touch a computer and education will improve. Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in.

Even in more thoughtful school districts, staff development efforts too often go for the “quick fix.” Speakers and authors like Tom Snyder argue that no significant innovation will succeed in a school without directly benefiting the central group of adults first. I was always troubled by this view and have recently become convinced of how profoundly misguided this view is.

The conventional wisdom is too often, “If I teach the teacher to put the students’ arithmetic problems into Math Blaster, then they will learn to assist their students in creating collaborative inter-disciplinary multimedia reports in LogoWriter…” If the teacher can write parental letters using a word processor, then they will fall in love with the writing process and change their language arts curriculum to a whole language process…” “If I teach a math teacher to use a gradebook program, he/she will begin to use manipulatives and symbol manipulators as an integral part of the math curriculum…”

There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this all too prevalent strategy of pandering has any positive impact on the growth process of teachers or schools. In fact, I have seen this approach to staff development degrade teachers by assuming that they were not capable of learning new skills or sharing powerful ideas. It is incredibly insulting to believe that teachers are so selfish that the only way in which to get them to appropriate new technologies and methodologies is to “train” them to do trivial administrative tasks. The implication is that teachers are too “burnt-out” or detached to care about the exciting educational potential of new technologies. Too often elementary school teachers are sentenced to a lifetime of . word processing and word processing only because of a lack of respect for teachers and a subtle gender bias towards female teachers.

The way in which you directly benefit teachers is by helping them directly benefit kids. You improve the lives of teachers by helping them become better teachers.

Even the “bad” teachers our society is so fond of discussing will be inspired by seeing students engaged in exciting new ways – with no materials, ideas, processes, and content. After all, is that not the reason for ongoing staff development? It seems ridiculous to suggest that teachers are the only group of professionals incapable of using computers in meaningful ways. This view is a result of the way in which schools often approach the use of computers by students.

Over the past decade schools sought to make computers, which are transparent in the world and the life of the child, into a discipline – hard and worthy of study. Terms such as computer literacy, computer lab, computer coordinator, and courses in information technology have become commonplace in primary and secondary schools. These ideas, at best, are rooted in the educational bureaucracy’s deeply-held paranoia about only teaching what is testable and at worst is designed to create an artificial range (bell curve) of good computer users and bad computer users.

Neither case respects what students already know. It seems as ridiculous to think that a sixteen year-old student in an information technology class needs to be taught what a mouse is as it is to assume that a professional educator is incapable of using technology used routinely by Burger King employees.

So, what should we do? I would argue that computer-based staff development activities should focus on the change process and immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant activities, in which he/she will be encouraged to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learners for their students.

SUGGESTIONS FOR SUCCESS

• Work With the Living
Schools have limited technological and teacher development resources and they should be allocated prudently. Good teachers who have yet to recognize how computer technology may enhance their teaching are not evil. If a school focuses its energy and resources on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, then the enthusiasm among the teaching staff will be infectious. When fifteen teachers in a school or district joyfully use technology more teachers are likely to have found a comfortable path towards implementation. Within a few years the most recalcitrant of teachers will recognize that they are in the minority and may seek other employment. It is important that a variety of models be created for teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas to choose from. The school should be cautious not to create negative models of computing use.

• Work On Teachers’ Turf
Educators responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work along-side the teacher in his/her classroom to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students are capable of and this is difficult to do in brief workshop at the end of a long workday.

• Off-site Institutes
Schools must ensure that teachers not only understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructionism – they must be given the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to actually re-experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.

• Provide Adequate Support
Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom quicker than not supporting the teacher who worked hard to develop new skills. Be sure that the school does eveiything humanly possible to support the teacher’s efforts by providing the technology requested, maintaining it, and by having access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.

• Practice What You Preach
Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructionist learning.

• Share Learning Stories
Teachers should be encouraged to reflect on personal significant learning experiences from their lives and the staff development experience. They should share these experiences with their colleagues and discuss the relationship between their profound learning experiences and their classroom practices.

• Celebrate Initiative
Teachers who have made a demonstrative commitment to educational computing should be recognized by being freed of some duties in order to assist colleagues in their classrooms, encouraged to lead workshops, and given access to additional hardware.

• In-School Sabbaticals
Innovative teachers should be provided with the school time and resources necessary to develop curricula and conduct action research in her/his school.

• Assist Teacher Purchases of Technology
Schools should help fund 50- 80% of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer for use in school and home. This act demonstrates to teachers that you value computers as an important aspect of the school and that they should share this commitment. Partial funding also provides teachers with the flexibility to purchase the right personal computer configuration. The school may offer an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.

• Have Abundant Technology Available
A teacher in a school with hundreds of computers quickly recognizes that the school values classroom computing.

• Cast a Wide Net
No one method of staff development works for all teachers. A combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conference participation, and whole learning residential workshops must be available for teachers to choose from at their own pace. Teachers should be made to feel comfortable growing at their own rate. Therefore, a variety of staff development options may need to be offered regularly.

• Avoid Software Dujour
The people responsible for paying for school computing are made to feel guilty by the media and other administrators if they do not constantly do something “new” with their computers. Unfortunately newness is equated with lots of software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. Using narrow skill-specific software has little benefit to students and undermines staff comfort with computing. Choose an open-ended environment, such as LogoWriter, [now MicroWorlds] in which students express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.

• Never Satisfied – Only Gratified
Staff development must always be dedicated to continuing educational excellence. If we desire to restructure schools then we must recognize that the only constant we can depend on is teachers. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance that professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.


• A version of this article will appear in the Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on
Technology and Education at MIT

Certainty book cover

Last night, students in one of my pre-service methods courses presented a curricular lesson they designed and a paper exploring a dilemma encountered while student teaching. There was plenty of insecurity in their presentations – voices trailing off into near silence, as well as defensiveness when asked to support an argument or defend a position. Such reactions are predictable.

What struck me as significant was how future educators standing on quicksand were quite certain about their ideas, regardless of how flimsy they happened to be. When confronted with clearly obvious factual errors in the proposed lesson, more than one student teacher responded with a version, “Well, I disagree,” or “Because I said so.”

It would have been nice if these students demonstrated some humility and were eager to change their stance (and modify the lesson). Seymour Sarason often points out that schools “lack a capacity for self-correction.” In this case, it’s probably reasonable to conclude that schools are merely collections of teachers.

Certainty not only afflicts teacher wannabes. A few nights ago, a non-American blogger from a country far far away wrote a blog posting and then announced its existence to the world via Twitter. This blog quoted an online magazine’s account of a presentation by a popular purveyor of clichés and other nonsense about contemporary education. After careful deliberation I decided to ask the Twitterer/blogger about the fallacies and factual errors he/she reported in the blog post.

The blogger responded that he/she did feel a bit queasy about the validity of the information, but passed it on as the basis of policy recommendations nonetheless. Each iteration of the reporting – the article, blog post about the article and then the tweet about the blog post about the article about the presentation – FAILED to question the validity or even “truthiness” of the claims made by the original myth-maker. Each iteration leads to a greater impression that the information has been vetted and is factual.

I fear that Web 2.0 amplifies this false sense of certainty and accelerates the rate at which “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (attributed to Mark Twain, even if I have reason to suspect otherwise given how every clever quip seems attributed to Twain)

Just in time!

Salon features an incredibly timely article*, The Certainty Epidemic, by a medical doctor named Robert Burton. Despite a reliance on neuroscience that may represent an even greater false sense of certainty where none is warranted, the article (and book it touts) raises important issues for all of us, such as:

We must learn to substitute “I believe” for “I know.”

Watch Stephen Colbert’s stunning 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner where he lampooned President George W. Bush’s reliance on his gut, rather than on his head. [Warning: There may be a juvenile commercial prior to the actual speech. It’s the best clip I found to embed in this blog. You may also watch the video, sans-commercial, here.


Watch Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com



* Note: The “science” used to make Burton’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt and runs the risk of detracting from the important issue of us professing certainty when we are merely stating an opinion.