“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.