My pal Will Richardson asked me to respond to news that the Florida legislature (ground zero for destructive education policies) has passed a bill allowing high school students to substitute “coding” courses for foreign language requirements. (see Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language)

If you are a toddler learning English as a second language between binge watching seasons of Glitter Force, it’s easy to see how “coding” in a programming language and literacy in a foreign language are equivalent.

For adult legislators entrusted with governance, this policy means two things:

  1. They have no idea what computer coding is.
    • When policy makers say that students should “understand” technology or refer to technology as a “basic skill,” they reveal a profound ignorance of computer science and have reduced a powerful intellectual pursuit to the level of a bicycle safety assembly or “don’t copy that floppy” poster.
  2. They are finally willing to admit that they don’t give a rat’s ass about teaching foreign language.
    • This may also be a tacit recognition that high school foreign language instruction is mostly torturous and unsuccessful.

When Will tweeted me about the news, a fellow twitterit asked, “Why music can’t satisfy foreign language requirements?” While, there is no greater advocate for music education than myself, this newfound willingness to substitute one discipline for a completely unrelated required course is an admission that all course requirements should be abolished. There is so little consensus on what matters. And that may be a very good thing.


Related articles:

In First Chance to Make a Learning Impression, my friend Will Richardson shares his disappointment with the “back-to-school” packets he just received in anticipation of his children’s next school year. Will explains how the focus of the packet is on everything but learning.

Just for fun, I set out to see how long it would take to find the word “learning” somewhere in the mix. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third…by the time I finally found the first instance I had stopped counting. It was a buried line in a letter from the principal explaining that due to NCLB, every teacher has to be “highly qualified” and that “every teacher continues life-long learning through professional development activities.”

Will’s 2013 article reminded me of a similar article I wrote for District Administration Magazine way back in 2004. I recommend reading Will’s article as well.

Gary Stager on One-sided Parent Contracts
Here’s a list of promises I think schools should keep
By: Gary Stager
District Administration, Sep 2004

DA Archive

The back-to-school commercials each summer fill me with dreadful flashbacks of my own days as a student. As a parent, the end of summer is signaled by a last-minute desire to squeeze in a bit more family fun and the arrival of a large ominous envelope from the local high school. The package contains countless documents commanding our immediate attention and signatures in triplicate.

This enormous collection of murdered trees contains countless rules, regulations and a list of innumerable sanctions the school intends to visit upon my child. As if this draconian catalogue of crimes and subsequent punishments were not bad enough, I am then expected to sign the documents, implying that I agree with them.

This recent and disturbing phenomenon leaves me with many unanswered questions. What if I don’t sign the forms? When did the local public school become a gulag? Was there a public meeting in The Hague at which these rules and sanctions were compiled and democratically agreed to? Is this the best way to start a fresh school year? Can I have Johnnie Cochran look over the documents before I affix my signature?

If the school expects parents to sign-off on a list of ways school discipline may be enforced, perhaps I can circulate a list of expectations for how I expect the school to educate my child. It only seems fair.

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • School to home communications will be proofread and spell-checked
  • Teachers will take reasonable steps to maintain expertise in their subject area
  • Homework will be purposeful and only assigned when necessary to reinforce a concept, engage in a long-term project or as the result of work not completed in-class
  • Children will be encouraged to play
  • Classroom libraries will be stocked with interesting books
  • Students will not be treated as numbers
  • Teachers will discuss current events with their students
  • Students will be encouraged to talk about books they read, not just create mobiles and book reports
  • School personnel will publish their e-mail addresses and respond to e-mail promptly
  • The school district Web site will be updated more often than every five years
  • Class sizes will be 20 or lower
  • Teachers will attend at least one professional learning event outside of the school district per year
  • Teachers will not talk down to children
  • Punishment will be viewed as a last resort
  • The school will offer rich visual and performing arts opportunities for all students
  • Curriculum will endeavor to remain relevant and connected to the world
  • Classroom rules will be developed democratically
  • There will be formal and informal opportunities for parents to interact with teachers
  • The principal will be accessible to students and parents
  • Administrators will make an effort to interact with students in positive contexts
  • Student diversity will be valued and celebrated
  • Cooperation will be valued over competition
  • The school will refrain from sorting, tracking, streaming and labeling children
  • Students will play a large role in all aspects of the life of the school;
  • Authentic forms of assessment will be used
  • A modern functioning computer will be available whenever a child needs one
  • Teachers will embrace opportunities to learn with and from students
  • The school will take teacher input seriously
  • Teachers will feel supported and encouraged to take risks
  • Effective models of professional development will be designed and include the participation of the principal
  • Equal attention and resources will be applied to the arts as to sports
The Coalition of Essential Schools offers 10 common principles for schools concerned with excellence–www.essentialschools.org/pub/ces_docs/about/phil/10cps/10cps.html

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

First, my good friend Chris Lehmann wrote about in “Why I Am Against For Profit Schools,” how the school privatization movement (and I would add the Obama administration) have embraced the rhetoric of personalization and individualization to replace teachers with less expensive drill and practice systems. These integrated “learning” systems reduce education to an endless  series of multiple-choice quizzes. (read what I wrote about this idea in 1992, Integrated Learning Systems, The New Slavery) They never have worked and never will.

Since the evidence supporting computerized teaching systems has been weak since WWII, the dystopians and their bankers pushing this idea feel compelled to dress it up in fancy names like “Carpe Diem,” “Flipped Classroom,” “School of One,” “Blast,” “Khan Academy,” etc…. Each of these old wines in new marketing slogans have at their core a desire to reduce the cost of education as low as possible and attempt to do so by replacing qualified educators with 200 terminals, Math Blaster and an armed security guard.

Soon after Chris published his article, our mutual friend Will Richardson wrote “The Thin Value Proposition,” in which he too agrees with Chris and argues that the the value in schooling is the establishment of relationships among teachers and students. I often end my speeches by saying that teachers make memories and when students come back to reminisce, they never speak about the time they raised PISA scores or used all of their spelling words in a sentence, they remember meaningful projects teachers created the context for.

I agree with the arguments made by Chris and Will. They perfectly frame the terms of the conundrum many of us who advocate the use of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression face when more powerful forces wish to use computers as tools of oppression, cost-cutting or antidotes for progressive education. How is it possible to love computers in education and hate the popular implementations of computers in education?

It is questions like this that led me to create The Daily Papert two years ago.

Papert articulated Will’s argument twenty-two years ago.

“It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”– it only hobbles the good ones.”

Papert. S. (1990, July). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. Speech presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Sydney, Australia.

Seymour Papert began giving voice to Chris Lehmann’s concerns as far back as 1968!

“The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.”

Papert S. (1980). Teaching Children Thinking in Taylor, R., Ed., The Computer in School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. New York: Teachers College Press. pp. 161 -176.

Note: This paper was originally presented in 1970 at the IFIP World Conference on Computers in Education in Amsterdam. The paper was published as an MIT Logo Memo No. 2. Nicholas Negroponte reports that Papert first presented this work in 1968.

A few years ago, I turned my friend Will Richardson onto Seymour Sarason‘s great book, And What Do YOU Mean About Learning? Ever since, Will has been asking people to define learning.

Earlier this week, I had a meeting in Reggio Emilia, Italy where I picked up a pamphlet explaining their awe-inspiring approach to early childhood education. It looks like the sort of document you might see scattered at the DMV or local health clinic, but its contents are profound.

Here is how the infant-toddler centers and preschools of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia define learning:

Learning as a process of individual and group construction

Each child, like each human being, is an active constructor of knowledge, competencies, and autonomies, by means of original learning processes that take shape with methods and times that are unique and subjective in the relationship with peers, adults and the environment.

The learning process is fostered by strategies of research, comparison of ideas, and co-participation; it makes use of creativity, uncertainty, intuition, curiosity; it is generated in play and in the aesthetic, emotional relational, and spiritual dimensions, which it interweaves and nurtures; it is based on the centrality of motivation and the pleasure of learning.”

Infant-toddler Centers and Preschools Isituzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. (2011). Indications – Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. page 11.

Interested in learning more about the Reggio Emilia Approach to education?

I just posted the following a comment on Will Richardson’s blog post, How Can You Not Be Angry?

Dear Will,

I salute you. Stay angry!

You may remember that my New Year’s resolution was to swear more. That resolution was only partially tongue-in-cheek. We need to scream, swear, pull our pants down, wear costumes and whatever else it takes to save our public treasure (schools) from becoming the plaything of Gates, Murdoch and Broad. We are in deep trouble (kids are in worse trouble) if we don’t drop teacher civility and continue to be victimized.

As for swearing, Bill Gates called constructivism – a scientific theory as valid as gravity or evolution – bullshit IN PUBLIC AND IN PRINT. The quote appears within a few sentences of my comments in a recent Wired article. If Bill Gates calls the work of me and my colleagues, mentors and friends bullshit, how should I respond? Set up a VoiceThread? Make an Animoto? Decorate my bulletin boards with orange construction paper?

I always cite Abbie Hoffman as one of my heroes. Satire, mockery, outrageous behavior, civil disobedience and the courage of patriots helped end segregation and the War in Vietnam.

Teachers have changed the world, occasionally even in the United States. In 1964-65,  African Americans in Alabama considered voting rights the folly of young people. It wasn’t until the TEACHERS of the Selma area refused to accept second-class status and joined the movement that African American adults across the state not only took the issue seriously, but were mobilized to take action. This led to Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Some people, like Congressman John Lewis, had their skulls bashed in so that the rest of us may live up to the promise of America.

Watch http://amzn.to/pSXLZQ and learn how fearless college students changed America, jeopardizing their degrees and risking their lives. Buy the DVD and show it everybody you know.

Apartheid began to unravel in South Africa when thousands of students walked out of school because they were being miseducated (taught Afrikans instead of English). Some children were killed but Apartheid ended less than twenty years later. When countless American urban schools are entirely segregated and the students are fed a steady diet of test-prep, it may be time to end Apartheid education in this country as well.

Frankly, I didn’t give much thought to Saturday’s March on Washington because progressive educators can’t normally organize a softball game, but I plan on being there Saturday. I also signed-on as an endorser.

I will travel cross-country because of the unequivocal DEMANDS listed at http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/about/guiding-principles/ It is so refreshing to see educators start demanding what is right, not looking for compromises when none are warranted, ala Barack Obama.

If children cannot count on each and every one of their educators to stand between them and the madness, who can they count on?

Okily Dokily,

Gary

On June 26th, The Constructivist Consortium hosted the Fifth Annual Constructivist Celebration prior to the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. In addition to multiple meals, participants enjoyed a day of creativity, collaboration and computing thanks to software and project-based support from representatives of Tech4Learning, LCSI and Generation YES.

The day culminated with a 37-minute conversation between Will Richardson and myself. I am most grateful to Will for his generosity and participation!

Here is video of the conversation. Regrettably, the first few seconds of the conversation were not captured.

A Conversation with Will Richardson from Gary Stager on Vimeo.


Please subscribe to my very occasional newsletter!

The Constructivist Consortium is hosting its 5th annual Constructivist Celebration in Philadelphia, June 26, 2011 – the day before the ISTE Conference begins.

Join colleagues from around the world in a day-long minds-on celebration of creativity, computers and constructivist learning.

The Constructivist Celebration features project-based activities geared towards K-12 educators, administrators & teacher educators.

This year’s theme is HARD FUN! Educators completing a difficult year deserve some HARD FUN!

The day ends with a conversation with Will Richardson.

After a kickoff keynote by Dr. Gary Stager, participants will select challenges using the open-ended creativity software provided by Constructivist Consortium members, including LCSI, Tech4Learning and Inspiration. In addition to your mind and spirit, you body will be nourished by continental breakfast, hot lunch and afternoon snacks courtesy of our Maggiano’s Little Italy! Last year’s participants could not stop raving about the food!

Representatives of Generation YES, LCSI, SchoolKiT and Tech4Learning will lead challenges and support project development.

The day ends with time for project sharing and reflection followed by a conversation, “Digging Deeper,” with Will Richardson and Gary Stager. I am most grateful to Will for his generosity and willingness to participate!

Best of all, the entire day – software, an endles feast and a spa-day for the mind costs only $60!

Register today! Past Constructivist Celebrations have been extremely popular and space is limited.

Click here for more information!

I’m in the Sierra Mountains skiing where the altitude has replaced sleeping with hallucinating.

So, unable to sleep, I read Will Richardson’s latest blog post at 4AM. Will expands upon a blog post by David Weinberger in which Weinberger asks breathlessly,

“Why did the world shatter at the touch of a hyperlink?”

Weinberger is a Web philosopher, so one can expect that in his world view, the universe is made of “the Web.” It is the answer to every question. He also makes the mistake (IMHO) in believing that human behavior, culture and institutions may be reduced to information access.

Weinberger, admittedly one of the smarter “Web philosophers,” nonetheless uses the bits vs. atoms analogy first expressed by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1996 book, Being Digital, not to predict technological innovation, but in order to paint a dystopian vision of the present in which “every discipline” is now “a fiction.”

Will Richardson expands on Weinberger’s theme and writes the following:

“And I’m wondering, deep down, have we known all along that this idea of an “education” was really a fiction, something we created out of necessity with the implicit understanding that in a world limited by atoms, it was never really the end all, be all, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances? And if we didn’t know that, can we admit that now?

The circumstances have changed. We’re no longer constrained by atoms. For 125 years we’ve been making the learning world small, and now the world is all of a sudden big…huge. All of a sudden, the walls have been obliterated. Learning is unbound, and “an education” is next.”

I fully appreciate Will’s impatience with the educational landscape, but I think I disagree with his thesis.

There was no omnipotent power forcing us to make learning small. Besides, some pretty great freakin’ stuff was invented over the past 125 years – including the World Wide Web. Diseases were eradicated and great social movements triumphed. The past century gave us Dewey, Patri, Papert, Malaguzzi, Piaget, Kohl, Kozol, Kohn, Sizer, Littky, Meier, Holt, Postman and countless others who reinvented education.

The 1826 book, “Last of the Mohicans,” was the most popular book in America at the time of its publication, but is barely readable by literate Americans today. 100-110 years ago, millions of Americans could read and play Ragtime sheet music on their piano. That feat surely “atomizes” the ability of a lot fewer people to demonstrate a whole lot less talent with a much simpler instrument like Garageband today.

We might turn President Obama’s recent proclamation, “We do big things,” into the question, “We do big things?

It’s weird playing the role of the conservative, but isn’t there a hell of a lot we (all) can do to make schools more productive contexts for learning? Can’t we teach interesting things in meaningful ways? Can’t we develop genuine expertise and share it with our peers and the next generation? Can’t we be receptive to the intentions of young people and learn from them – if not skills and facts, perhaps intensity?

It seems to me that the “blow up the past,” “extinguish everything that brought us here (good and bad)” stuff is really a cheap parlor trick – pure rhetoric.

Kids may discover how to play with a cello on the Web, but they’ll never become a cellist that way. We see how well factual knowledge is obtained when half of America is sympathetic to birtherism. We live in a society where most Caucasians don’t know someone of a different race, yet we embrace the “diversity of the blogosphere,” which is less diverse than a public bus. How does culture sustain itself and progress? Democracy?

So many questions…

Why do we congratulate ourselves for using Skype? Why do we limit children’s computing to keyboarding instruction, Internet research or burping into VoiceThread? Is nothing fixable? Do we need 21st Century skills to supplant time-honored intellectual processes?

Why do we so lack the capacity for self-correction. Why is it safer and more comfortable to behave in a way contrary to the interests of ourselves and the kids we are supposed to serve? Why has the slightest act of disobedience against the curriculum or administrative edict taken on biblical significance? What’s wrong with US?

Who can we trust to invent a future when so few of us have the courage to teach as well as we were instructed the first night of teacher-ed? The only reason for despair is if we are truly “the change we’ve been waiting for.”


If you’re interested in learning more from the wisdom of our predecessors about how to “educate” better, check out this collection of books provided by The Constructivist Consortium.

You should also check out The Daily Papert and Constructing Modern Knowledge!

Uber-edublogger Will Richardson recently published a blog post entitled, Valuing Change. In the article, he reiterated the frequent lament that teachers don’t “consider” or “value” change especially when the Web allows students to “connect outside of the classroom.” The who, what or why of connecting isn’t discussed.

Will’s article illustrates a teacher’s unwillingness to embrace change by showing how a topic like gerrymandering could be made more engaging through the use of information technologies. Will recognizes the challenges facing teachers and offers an olive branch by suggesting that we can “do both” – teach what will likely be on the test and do so more meaningly.

It should come as no surprise that I disagree, especially given the example used.

As I write this, there are two dozen comments in addition to the few I contributed. Either blog commenters don’t consider the ideas of other commenters or my argument was not clear enough.

Perhaps, as much as you would like it to be otherwise, the incrementalism of “doing both” is really the problem.

Why would you Skype someone involved “in the process?” What process? Who? State legislators? What are they likely to tell a student that can’t be found out in a book or article?

The connections you speak of, now matter how much you yearn for them may be as inauthentic as the task itself. Perhaps they just make a task nobody cares about even more arduous. The “you can use Google ____ or Skype with someone” suggestions have become as automatic and meaningless as when a politician says, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.”

One of the lessons I learned from Seymour Papert (http://dailypapert.com) was that you cannot transform school just by changing teaching practices or even the technology used. You must rethink, challenge or reinforce the content of the curriculum. The “what” has a great deal of impact on the how and the why of learning something.

Papert once asked me, “What are you thinking about doing with the students next?” When I replied, “We were thinking of doing some geography…,” he shot back with, “And what can they DO with that?”

“Whatever you ‘teach’ kids should have a high liklihood of leading to the construction of a bigger question or a larger theory (NOW – not later), otherwise, why bother?”

Like so much of schooling, the topic of gerrymandering is really just a vocabulary exercise. Memorize the definition and move on. I’m not sure you can put lipstick on that pig.

I do not believe that it is possible to make schools more productive contexts for learning (the how we teach) without calling the curriculum into question (the what we teach).

When Will requested “The Stager Plan,” I replied…

If I wasn’t clear enough above, a substantial aspect of “The Stager Plan” includes expending some serious effort at every school to determine what is worth being taught.

Pedagogical strategies should reflect the content and the learning styles of students.

The ideas proposed for making gerrymandering more engaging only add false complexity to what is a vocabulary term, likely taught in isolation as the curriculum whizzes by.

My other concern is how we tend to reduce education to information access (or trading information) and how the emphasis on using computers as information appliances reinforces the status quo while depriving learners of authentic experiences.

In addition to commenters reminding us of the wonders of Web 2.0 technology, the author repeates the familiar cliché, “We need to use technology to get kids engaged in the curriculum, not just in the technology.”

Why is this so? Should teachers be so compliant and teach anything they’re told to, regardless of context or value?

Also, why is engaging with the “technology” so quickly dismissed as being inferior to the curriculum?

Here’s a thought experiment…

What if we DID do everything in our power to engage kids in the technology? (I don’t think you can engage someone else, but I’ll leave that aside)

This might be the first real engagement kids experience.

Learning computer programming might actually lead to different thinking, different thinking about thinking, student agency and provide a window for teachers into the intellectual capabilities of kids.

I wish there was a way for me to run a hands-on workshop for every teacher in the world during which they could experience the intellectual rigor and creative joy experienced while computing. Not only is this workshop necessary for teachers who don’t use “technology” in the ways Will’s post urges, but educators excited by Web 2.0 would do well to expand their computing fluency as well.

Educators interested in spending four days on creative computing projects with a world-class faculty and amazing guest speakers this summer should check out Constructing Modern Knowledge. Act quickly, this very special event may sell-out!