Pointing in the Wrong Direction
© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

Published in the January 2004 issue of 

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night.

Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day — or during another school year — with low expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes (and uses all of the toner in the hemisphere).

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and the school will be out of toner for the remainder of the year.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?
Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

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.

I recently published my 2017 summer reading suggestions for educators, but here is an equally radical list from 2002! See my 2006 recommendations too.

School’s almost out, and it’s the perfect time to get in some interesting reading that will reinvigorate you for September

From the June 2002 issue of District Administration

One of the best ways to spend the summer is curled up with a good book. The following are nominees for books that will inspire, provoke or entertain educators. Professional development for you and your staff is only a bookstore away. Why not stay connected with your colleagues this summer by starting a book club? You can find all of these books and more here.

Summer Reading
The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith
This may well be the most beautiful, clear and pro-found book ever written about learning and overcoming the obstacles to learning created by schools. Smith paints a gorgeous picture of what real learning is and explains how it differs from what he calls the official theory of learning.

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope by Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol’s latest book about the lives and education of poor kids will touch your heart. One of my all-time favorite books.

What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian
I adore every book written by this master teacher, humorist and educational critic. Her most recent book explores the human cost of our current testing-mania, shares teaching anecdotes and discusses what parents are doing to make schools more playful places to learn.

American Psychology and Schools: A Critique by Seymour Sarason
Prolific author, educator and psychologist Sarason candidly investigates the question, “Where has the American psychological community been during the heightened concern over standardized testing and school violence?” He offers hypotheses for this disinterest in schools and explores the damage to the public welfare caused by the collective silence of the psychological community.

Leadership
The Inner Principal by David Loader
Veteran principal David Loader courageously explores the joys, challenges and inner conflicts of being a school principal. His accomplishments on behalf of kids will inspire school leaders. Teachers will give their principals a hug.

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom Demarco
The latest book by this management guru argues that effective organizations need slack to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and productivity, particularly among knowledge workers.

One for Each Level
The following books are designed to appeal to elementary, middle school and high school teachers.

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach Advanced Reflections by Edwards, Gandini and Forman (Editors)
This remarkable book should be read and re-read by every educator. It seems to contain solutions to every educational problem. While the city of Reggio Emilia focuses on early childhood education, there are numerous lessons to be learned by teachers at all levels.

Caught in the Middle—Nonstandard Kids and the Killing Curriculum by Susan Ohanian
Ohanian makes the case for a learner-centered approach to the middle grades from her amusing perspective.

Rethinking High School: Best Practice in Teaching by Daniels, Bizar and Zemelman
A six-year case study of the planning through graduation of a new Chicago school committed to preparing students for the 21st century.

Technology
Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids: (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven’t Got a Clue) by Winn Schwartau
This book explores a large quantity of ethical issues facing citizens in the digital age. While written for adolescents, adults will find the description of ethical dilemmas, the law and common sense useful in making sense of this confusing era.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


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

 

 

 


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


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


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

 


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

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

Back in the late Eighties, there was a Logo Conference held in Los Angeles. After a wild night reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film, “After Hours,” longtime Papert collaborator Brian Silverman and I found ourselves locked out of where we were supposed to sleep.

Seymour Papert & Gary Stager in Sydney, 2004

Ever the problem solver, Brian said, “Seymour always has a big room. We can sleep there.”

So, we drove back across town and woke Seymour before 5 AM. Despite our discourteous invasion and before we went off to sleep, Papert offered a bit of profundity that withstands the test of time.

One of the people we had been partying with earlier in the evening was teacher, turned software developer, Tom Snyder. Brian remarked something along the lines of, “Tom is a good guy.” Seymour disagreed and said that he viewed the world of educational technology as a triangle with Alfred Bork, Tom Snyder, and himself (Papert) in each of the vertices.  Papert went on to say that each of the three men possess a stance that views technology as benefitting one of three constituents in the educational system.

Alfred Bork was notorious for saying that teachers had low SAT scores, were not very bright, and any future teacher shortage would be corrected by replacing teachers with teaching machines. Today’s online testing, “personalized instruction,” and other dystopian systems concerned with delivery, testing, surveillance, and accountability are manifestations of Bork’s fantasies.

Tom Snyder was a fledgling educational software designer in the late 1980s trying to make payroll and in need of a catchy marketing niche. He looked around and found that most classrooms had one computer. So, he decided to make software for the “one computer classroom.” In this scenario, the teacher was an actor, the classroom was a set, and the computer was a prop for engaging in whole class or small group problem solving. Oddly, this practical marketing slogan born from a shortage of computers nearly thirty years ago remains an enduring metaphor for classroom computer use. The “interactive” whiteboard is one example. (Some of Tom’s software is still available)

A Choice Must Be Made

Seymour Papert believed in the late 1960s that every child would and should have a personal computer with which to mess about with powerful ideas, create, and collaborate.

These three points of view described by Papert in the middle of the night described how technology is not neutral and in an educational setting, it always grants agency to one of three actors; the system, the teacher, or the student. Papert’s disciples see the greatest benefit arising from granting maximum agency to the learner.

Technology is never neutral. An incredibly clever teacher might be able to pull a technology a little bit between the vertices in the triangle, but that doesn’t change the equation. Educators need to decide upon whom they wish to bestow agency. I’m in Papert’s corner. It is best for learners and enjoys the greatest return on investment.


Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com.

Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!

 

Do your teachers need a computing IEP?

At the recent Consortium for School Networking conference educational computing pioneer Seymour Papert was asked to explain why there has been so little transformation. Papert told the crowd that their practice of verbal inflation was the major obstacle to educational innovation in the digital age. He meant the breathless rhetoric about the magical ways technology is used in classrooms, when most of those tales could not pass the “So what?” test. Conventional notions of curriculum, assessment and practice are seldom questioned, he said, and yet we have the temerity to declare, “Transformation!”

Computer-generated mind maps are presented to the community as justification for the technology investment while they represent little more than high-tech napkin scribbles or a book report outline. Wiring is mistakenly confused with innovation while we hold on with all our might to the ridiculous mythology of drill-and-practice. The only transformation in the software industry is the ever-changing collection of ways it disguises that you’ll be gonged if you get a long division problem incorrect. Integrated learning systems, classroom performance systems and adaptive instruction are clever euphemisms for turning classrooms into high-stakes game shows. This is just 1980s Math Blaster without that pesky patina of fun.

Teachers who don’t use computers aren’t digital immigrants; they’re digital ninnies.

Conference programs are filled with presentations on how to use computers to reinforce a trivial aspect of the traditional curriculum without ever calling into question that content. Our attention should be paid to how the computer might allow children to not only learn what the textbooks prescribe in a deeper, more efficient fashion, but to develop what Papert called, “modern knowledge.”

All sorts of excuses are made for why the most powerful intellectual instrument ever invented, the computer, has had so little impact on schooling. We blame a shortage of professional development, funding or quality software. Publishers, politicians and principals are also accused of impeding educational progress with their hierarchical mandates. Yet, the simple fact remains that a quarter century after microcomputers entered your schools a minority of teachers use them and an even smaller percentage do so in a way that increases opportunities for all learners.

Lurking in the teacher’s room

Fifteen years ago I had the good fortune to lead professional development at the first two schools where every child had a laptop. Wondrous student work emerged and a good number of educators even “transformed” their teaching practice. Yet, it seemed impossible to reach the “tipping point” when the vast majority of teachers used computers in constructive ways. It turns out there was a staff member, ironically an IT teacher, who would take colleagues aside and tell them not to worry about the laptops or the silly talk of innovation. “This too shall pass,” he suggested. This one teacher caused inestimable damage before moving to several other schools and repeating the pattern.

Many schools harbor such low-tech insurgents and pay too little attention to their potential for destruction.

Dear Mr. & Ms. Crabtree:

You are not noble defenders of childhood innocence or pedagogical excellence. You have managed to block student access to critical learning opportunities and intellectual tools for more than 25 years. There is no acceptable excuse for cheating a generation of children.

Words matter

We love cute little cliches referring to children as digital natives and adults are mere digital immigrants. Not only is this simplistic aphorism insulting to the millions of grown-ups capable of using a computer, but it also provides cover for the teachers who have refused to enter the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, they’re special.

Why not call such teachers digital ninnies? How about non-learners? Students should not be entrusted to adults so oppositionally defiant as learners. An IEP would be created for a child who displayed such an unwillingness to grow.

School leaders need to expand their vision, raise expectations and use precise language they are indeed going to transform education for the next generation of learners. Let’s cut the baloney, increase access and share compelling models of what children can learn and do with computers.

Read more

Blocked Web sites, IT staff that exist to hinder staff, and restrictive policies make integrating technology too hard to overcome
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – December 2002

I recently spent a week teaching in a wonderful school. The school sits on a gorgeous sprawling campus. The principal is well read and charming. The students were delightful and the teachers generous with their hospitality. Every student has his or her own laptop. I was engaging the children in activities I love, and yet I found the overall experience excruciating. Why? Because of an information technology staff run amok.

The unchecked policies, practices and prior restraint exercised by the school’s information technology team made it impossible for me to teach effectively. It seemed as if a surprise lurked behind every mouse click and URL. Despite the school’s enormous investment in computers and networking, very little of it actually worked in the ways one would expect

Non-educators implemented policies prohibiting teachers from-downloading and uploading files, regardless of their content. IP settings needed to be changed when a user switched from an Ethernet to wireless connection. The streaming of QuickTime or RealMedia ties was prohibited regardless of their educational value. Student work could not be published online because the school’s “extranet” has yet to go live. I think extranet is some meglamaniac’s synonym for the Internet

I face similar frustrations at every school I visit–anywhere in the world. I need to beg a network technician for the magical network password, secret IP settings or request an act of Congress to make a presentation. Teachers enrolled in Pepperdine University’s prestigious Online Masters in Educational Technology are routinely denied access to their own coursework by ridicolous filters that ban .edu domains.

It is worth noting that none of these obstacles protect children from the real or imagined threat of pedophiles from Turkmenistan or inappropriate Web content. These obstructions are the creation of control freaks eager to maintain authority they neither earn or deserve. The payroll and morale costs are inestimable.

The Looming Crisis
Computer coordinators used to say, “If I do my job, I won’t have a job in two years.” A decade later there seems to be a dozen non-instructional tech coordinators, directors or managers for each of their predecessors.

Haven’t computers become easier to use and more reliable? Shouldn’t professional educators be competent computer users after a generation of bribing, begging, cajoling, tricking, threatening, inservicing and coercing? If so, then why do we have so many support personnel employed by schools? How much do they cost? When will they be unnecessary?

Reasonable people may disagree over the role of Web filtering and schools have a finite budget for bandwidth. However, IT personnel are making insane, expensive and miseducative decisions. There is no greater threat to successful classroom computer use than the actions of the staff employed to support that very use.

The Web is not static. Plug-ins are not a cancer, they add functionality. I am grateful that Web browsers were built with an open architecture allowing them to be extensible. This has accelerated the power of the Web in ways unanticipated by its creators.

The power of the Web is in its ability to democratize publishing and offer students the potential for unlimited audience. This is a critical educational rationale derailed by non-educators. Such policies insult professional educators.

Administrators who give unprecedented budgetary discretion and policy-making control to IT staff are abdicating their responsibilities. School leaders need to summon the courage to face things that plug-in and become conversant in networking issues. They must supervise non-instructional personnel and determine their actual staffing needs. Failure to do so results in an enormous waste of money, teacher dissatisfaction and underutilized technology.

I have been using computers for more than 25 years. I use and maintain a cross-platform wireless network at home. I write computer manuals, program in several languages and yet needed to call for help every few minutes during my recent teaching stint. The average teacher juggling all of her responsibilities with a desire to use computers in the classroom does not have a prayer.

When it comes to technology, teachers are too often treated as imbeciles or felons!

In 1990, I was hired to teach public school 4th grade. By that time, I had already been engaging children in collaborative online projects for several years and sbsing a telephone for most of my twenty-seven years on earth. Two days into the school year I rebelled against the absurdity of not having a working telephone in my classroom, went to Radio Shack, purchased a $3 phone splitter, found a barely used telephone sitting in an abandoned office, connected the splitter, and began pulling a spool of phone cable down the school corridor. A custodian noticed my efforts and asked if I would like him to drill a few holes to make the job tidier. A few minutes later, I had a computer connected to the Internet via modem so that my students could work on National Geographic Kids Network science projects. (I could send and receive email too.)

Then as now, I could not understand why other teachers would suffer the indignities associated with not being trusted to use a telephone, 114 years after Bell yelled, “Watson! Come here! I need you!” Yet, the powerlessness continued. For at least another decade, teachers were forced to call their gynecologist from a payphone outside the cafetorium at lunch time.

Schools did not change policies, teachers bought their own damned cellphones and now could join the billions of other people around the world with phone access.

Kid confused by payphone (from http://abc7news.com/technology/video-little-boy-has-no-idea-what-a-pay-phone-is/723174/)

Kid confused by payphone (from http://abc7news.com/technology/video-little-boy-has-no-idea-what-a-pay-phone-is/723174/)

In 2016, educators are sent to workshops I lead with school-supplied laptops incapable of installing an “app,” playing a YouTube video, surfing to a .edu domain, or sending email with an attachment. Some have their USB ports disabled. This is not only a source of embarrassment for seemingly “professional” educators, but wastes precious learning time when those teachers are on the phone to the district IT fascist begging for access to their own “personal computer.” I need to abandon teaching to console grown educators frustrated that they cannot participate in sound educational experiences.

Irrational schools and school district policies quickly turn $1,200 teacher laptops into $100 pieces of sculpture.

Each spring, I receive email messages from educators attending Constructing Modern Knowledge. These messages say, “our school IT paraprofessional would like a list of all the software I will need this summer so he (always a HE) can install it for me.” Aside from this remarkable act of disempowerment and dependency, it misses the entire idea that computers are extensible. You never know which features and functionality that may emerge. I cannot and will not provide a list of software to be installed because that decision is based on the needs of the specific project that institute participants choose to work on.

Ten years ago, I was hired by a university to be a Visiting Professor. As part of my contract negotiations, I was promised a new laptop. When the university reneged, I spent a few grand on my own computer. Despite being a bit poorer, I had a key to the building, an office, and place to park my car. I was trusted to write curricula, teach, and award grades. One day, my laptop would no longer print to the university printers. When I interrupted the slumber of the tech “support” staff to troubleshoot, they informed me that faculty was no longer allowed to print from their personal (that word again) computers from their offices, even if the university didn’t provide computers. So, I bought a printer for $50 and put it in my office next to where my computer would sit.

In one act of lunacy, the university banned color printing. When I noticed that my senior colleague responsible for teacher credentialing was hand-coloring documents for the state licensing board with colored pencils, I took the damned printer off my desk and gave it to her.

Just as educators resolved one power imbalance by purchasing their own cellphones, it is time for action. My colleague Audrey Watters has written extensively about why everyone – student, teacher, citizen – needs a domain of one’s own. Pennies a day gets you a domain, server space, and private email account(s).

You know what else you should own? Your own damned laptop! Here’s what you can buy for $350 and have it arrive tomorrow. (Toshiba makes great PCs, but you can save even more money if you go with another manufacturer.)

Toshiba Radius 2016 Newest Edition 11.6″ HD LED-backlit TruBrite 2-in-1 Touchscreen Convertible Laptop | Intel Quad Core | 4GB RAM | 500GB HD | HDMI | Webcam | Bluetooth | WIFI | Windows 10

NOW do you understand why Secretary Clinton may have used her own server? Is it the least bit possible that the Federal Government can’t keep up with technological progress or imposes nonsensical rules for its use?

PS: Concerned that your school or district owns your intellectual property? Use you own damned server. For more than twenty years, every single syllabus, handout, article, paper… I wrote was stored on my own personal server. It would be really hard for your school superintendent or department chair to claim they own something that never lived on their network.

“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity….”

Those words, uttered by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, has driven my work for the past six or seven years. It is incumbent on every educator, parent, and citizen to build upon each kid’s capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom, misbehavior, ennui, or perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.

Schools need to raise the intensity level of their classrooms!

However, intensity is NOT the same as chaos. Schools don’t need any help with chaos. That they’ve cornered the market on.

capacity500
Anyone who has seen me speak is familiar with this photograph (above). It was taken around 1992 or 1993 at Glamorgan (now Toorak) the primary school campus of Geolong Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. The kids were using their laptops to program in LogoWriter, a predecessor to MicroWorlds or Scratch.

I love this photo because in the time that elapsed between hitting the space bar and awaiting the result to appear on the screen, every ounce of the kid’s being was mobilized in anticipation of the result. He was literally shaking,

Moments after that image was captured, something occurred that has been repeated innumerable times ever since. Almost without exception, when a kid I’m teaching demonstrates a magnificent fireball of intensity, a teacher takes me aside to whisper some variation of, “that kid isn’t really good at school.”

No kidding? Could that possibly be due to an intensity mismatch between the eager clever child and her classroom?

I enjoy the great privilege of working in classrooms PK-12 all over the world on a regular basis. This allows me observe patterns, identify trends, and form hypotheses like the one about a mismatch in intensity. The purpose of my work in classrooms is to model for teachers what’s possible. When they see through the eyes, hands, and sometimes screens of their students, they may gain fresh perspectives on how things need not be as they seem.

Over four days last month, I taught more than 500 kids I never met before to program in Turtle Art and MicroWorlds EX. I enter each classroom conveying a message of, “I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do.” I greet each kid with an open heart and belief in their competence, unencumbered by their cumulative file, IEP, social status, or popularity. In every single instance, kids became lost in their work often for several times longer than a standard class period, without direct instruction, or a single  disciplinary incident. No shushing, yelling, time-outs, threats, rewards, or other behavioral management are needed. I have long maintained that classroom management techniques are only necessary if you feel compelled to manage a classroom.

In nearly every class I work with – anywhere, teachers take me aside to remark about how at least one kid shone brilliantly despite being a difficult or at-risk student. This no longer surprises me.

In one particular class, a kid quickly caught my eye due to his enthusiasm for programming. The kid took my two minute introduction to the programming language and set himself a challenge instantly. I then suggested a more complex variation. He followed with another idea before commandeering the computer on the teacher’s desk and connected to the projector in order to give an impromptu tutorial for classmates struggling with an elusive concept he observed while working on his own project. He was a fine teacher.

Then the fifth grader sat back down at his desk to continue his work. A colleague suggested that he write a program to draw concentric circles. A nifty bit of geometric and algebraic thinking followed. When I kicked things up a notch by writing my own even more complex program on the projected computer and named it, “Gary Defeats Derrick.” The kid laughed and read my program in an attempt to understand my use of global variables, conditionals, and iteration. Later in the day, the same kid chased me down the hall to tell me about what he had discovered since I left his classroom that morning.

Oh yeah, I later learned that the very same terrific kid is being drummed out of school  for not being their type of student.

I learned long ago. If a school does not have bad children, it will make them.

 

Papert circa 1999 enjoying the work of a middle schooler

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert a lot lately. Our new book, “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” is dedicated to him and we tried our best to give him the credit he deserves for predicting, inventing, or laying the foundation for much of what we now celebrate as “the maker movement.” The popularity of the book and my non-stop travel schedule to bring the ideas of constructionism to classrooms all over the world is testament to Seymour’s vision and evidence that it took much of the world decades to catch up.

Jazz and Logo are two of my favorite things in life. They both make me feel bigger than myself and nurture me. Jazz and Logo provide epistemological lenses through which I view the world and appreciate the highest potential of mankind. Like jazz, Logo has been pronounced dead since its inception, but I KNOW how good it is for kids. I KNOW how it makes them feel intelligent and creative. I KNOW that Logo-like activities hold the potential to change the course of schooling. That’s why I have been teaching it to children and their teachers in one form or another for almost 32 years.

I’ve been teaching a lot of Logo lately, particularly a relatively new version called Turtle Art. Turtle Art is a real throwback to the days of one turtle focused on turtle geometry, but the interface has been simplified to allow block-based programming and the images resulting from mathematical ideas can be quite beautiful works of art. (you can see some examples in the image gallery at Turtleart.org)

Turtle Art was created by Brian Silverman, Artemis Papert (Seymour’s daughter) and their friend Paula Bonta. Turtle Art itself is a work of art that allows learners of all ages to begin programming, creating, solving problems, and engaging in hard fun within seconds of seeing it for the first time. Since an MIT undergraduate in the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has made Papert’s ideas live in products that often exceeded Papert’s expectations.

There aren’t many software environments or activities of any sort that engage 3rd graders, 6th graders, 10th graders and adults equally as Turtle Art. I wrote another blog post a year or so ago about how I wish I had video of the first time I introduced Turtle Art to a class of 3rd graders. Their “math class” looked like a rugby scrum, there was moving, and wiggling, and pointing, and sharing and hugging and high-fiving everywhere while the kids were BEING mathematicians.

Yesterday, I taught a sixth grade class in Mumbai to use Turtle Art for the first time. They worked for 90-minutes straight. Any casual observer could see the kids wriggle their bodies to determine the right orientation of the turtle, assist their peers, show-off their creations, and occasionally shriek with delight in a reflexive fashion when the result of their program surprised them or confirmed their hypothesis. As usual, a wide range of mathematical ability and learning styles were on display. Some kids get lost in one idea and tune out the entire world. This behavior is not just reserved to the loner or A student. It is often the kid you least expect.

Yesterday, while the rest of the class was creating and then modifying elaborate Turtle Art programs I provided, one sixth grader went “off the grid” to program the turtle to draw a house. The house has a long and checkered past in Logo history. In the early days of Turtle Graphics, lots of kids put triangles on top of squares to draw a house. Papert used the example in his seminal book, “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,” and was then horrified to discover that “making houses” had become de-facto curriculum in classrooms the world over. From then on, Papert refrained from sharing screen shots to avoid others concluding that they were scripture.

It sure was nice to see a kid make a house spontaneously, just like two generations of kids have done with the turtle. It reminded me of what the great jazz saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath said at Constructing Modern Knowledge last summer, “What was good IS good.”

Love is all you need
This morning, I taught sixty 10th graders for three hours. We spend the first 75 minutes or so programming in Turtle Art.  Like the 6th graders, the 10th graders  had never seen Turtle Art before. After Turtle Art,  the kids could choose between experimenting with MaKey MaKeys, wearable computing, or Arduino programming. Seymour would have been delighted by the hard fun and engineering on display. I was trying to cram as many different experiences into a short period of time as possible so that the school’s teachers would have options to consider long after I leave.

After we divided into three work areas, something happened that Papert would have LOVED. He would have given speeches about this experience, written papers about it and chatted enthusiastically about it for months. Ninety minutes or so after everyone else had moved on to work with other materials, one young lady sat quietly by herself and continued programming in Turtle Art. She created many subprocedures in order to generate the image below.


Papert loved love and would have loved this expression of love created by “his turtle.” (Papert also loved wordplay and using terms like, “learning learning.” I’m sure he would be pleased with how many times I managed to use love in one sentence.) His life’s work was towards the creation of a Mathland where one could fall in love with mathematical thinking and become fluent in the same way a child born in France becomes fluent in French. Papert spoke often of creating a mathematics that children can love rather than wasting our energy teaching a math they hate. Papert was fond of saying, “Love is a better master than duty,” and delighted in having once submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation with that title (it was rejected).

The fifteen or sixteen year old girl programming in Turtle Art for the first time could not possibly have been more intimately involved in the creation of her mathematical artifact. Her head, heart, body and soul were connected to her project.

The experience resonated with her and will stay with me forever. I sure wish my friend Seymour could have seen it.

Love,

 

 


Turtle Art is free for friends who ask for a copy, but is not open source. It’s educational efficacy is the result of a singular design vision unencumbered by a community adding features to the environment. Email contact@turtleart.org to request a copy for Mac, Windows or Linux.