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Don’t give up on schools, there is still much to be done

By Gary Stager

District Administration, Aug 2006

Dear Mr. Gates:

I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett’s enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts.

I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation’s efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.

Decide what you believe

You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason’s book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.

With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see “Radical Reformer,” November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.

Apparently it is rocket science

The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school’s award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?

It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt.

Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences

A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.

The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible

This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.

When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: “Would I proudly send my child to this school?”

Drop the business metaphors

Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your “partners” in education.

Drop the school metaphors

The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like “Sage on the stage” and “You must invest in professional development” fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.

Stop talking about results

Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.

If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of “more rigorous curriculum” and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.

You need to meddle

If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.

Work with the living and do no harm

You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.

Solve the college readiness problem

If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.

Admit that math education is a disaster

Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.

Show some courage

You are the richest man in the world. That’s like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, “Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago.” That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.

We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.

My latest article is in The Huffington Post. It’s called, “Who Elected Bill Gates?

The article is dense, but that was required to support my my indictment of his dangerous  influence and educational cockamamie schemes. I was thrilled when my article appeared originally  below one by Bill Gates and above an entry by his former deputy, Tom VanderArk, on the Education page of The Huffington Post.

It’s sad to watch a once smart and talented man go mad right before our eyes. There needs to be an intervention for Bill Gates. I fear that he has taken leave of his senses and finally jumped the shark…

…You would think that nothing else could surprise me, but now, Bill Gates has descended into the delusional world of Charlie Sheen.

Read the rest of the article here. PLEASE comment and share the article. It’s important that The Huffington Post know that like-minded folks are out there reading!

OK, even I never thought I’d utter those words aloud, but check out this interview with Tom Brokaw.

Gates displays a sense of humor when asked if he has an iPod and he provides a reasoned mature answer to the question about concerns over children being harmed by computers.

This stands in stark contrast to the fear and loathing displayed by popular edubloggers who regale us with the virtues of their technology-free cleansing retreats and the micromanagement of their children.

Hooray for Bill Gates! Who would have thunk it?

PS: This news report about Gates’ last day at Microsoft reminiscences is quite charming and well worth a read.

Note: I wrote the article below two years ago. In light of Eli Broad’s takeover of the United States government and Kanye West’s latest outrage, I thought it was worth another look. It’s just too bad that Barack Obama is willing to take policy advice from the friend of a jackass.





Bill Gates and Eli Broad can’t revolutionize public education alone. They need a posse. Realizing that they needed to appeal to more than billionaires and ex-Governors Ed in ’08 teamed up with another education policy expert, rapper Kanye West.

You may have heard by now that bad boy billionaires, Bill Gates and Eli Broad, are kicking it together. They invested $60 million (lunch money) in the Strong American Schools Project, also known as ED in ’08. They hope that this charitable non-profit organization “will catapult the need for improved public education to the top of the 2008 presidential candidates’ agendas.”(Heszenhorn, 2007) One can hardly criticize an effort to get presidential candidates discussing critical education issues, but it is unclear if Gates and Broad should be steering the agenda.

It is disingenuous that Gates and Broad are investing $60 million just to inspire spirited debate.

“One complication, however, is that ED in 08, isn’t just pushing candidates to have some real education agenda; it also wants them to support a specific trio of policies: more learning time for students, common academic standards across states, and tying teacher pay to things like subject specialty, performance, and working in high-poverty schools.” (Education_Sector, 2007)

Gates and Broad have very specific educational beliefs and track records in American schools. Gates pushes small schools while Broad is much more pernicious in the way he spends money to influence urban education policy.

“He says urban public schools are failing and must adopt methods from business to succeed, such as competition, accountability based on “measurables,” and unhampered management authority—all focusing on the bottom line of student achievement, as measured by standardized tests.

Broad wants to create competition by starting publicly funded, privately run charter schools, to enforce accountability by linking teacher pay to student test scores, and to limit teachers’ say in curriculum and transfer decisions.”(Mcintosh, 2007)

These efforts can have a negative impact on the quality of education they hope to improve. In the new book, Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol points out how the small school movement is exacerbating school segregation and suggests that Gates spend his money offering incentives for suburban districts to welcome urban students, complete with transportation.(Kozol, 2007) Classroom teachers and school administrators know well how the calls for business models, accountability and standardized testing has turned schools too many schools into joyless sweatshops.

Broad runs academies in which he “trains” school principals and superintendents, presumably like you would train seals if you wanted them to use Excel and focus on “measurables.”

Does Mr. Broad really want schools run with the virtues found in real estate development, the field where he made his money? How much low-income housing has Broad built? Real estate quality has as much to do with school quality as any other factor. Have Broad’s companies received tax abatements as incentives for development? If so, that money comes directly out of the tax base funding public schools.

Politicians are already programmed to say, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.” They say that in their sleep. Gates and Broad are already victorious, except for privatizing public schools.

Gather the Peeps

Gates and Broad can’t revolutionize public education alone. They need a posse. Who better to hire to direct their efforts than Governor Roy Romer? Romer was so effective as the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District that upon his retirement the district replaced him with someone possessing no qualifications whatsoever.

Realizing that they needed to appeal to more than billionaires and ex-Governors Ed in ’08 teamed up with another education policy expert, rapper Kanye West. In between drinking Cristal, feuding with 50 Cent and busting mad rhymes, West has had time to formulate a profound educational insight. Kids should go to school. Frankly, he may have spent more time creating his post-Katrina statement, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

Here’s some more wisdom from Mr. West…

We breakin’ up again,

We makin’ up again,

but we dont love no more,

I guess we f**kin’ then.

Have you ever felt you ever want to kill her,

and you mix them emotions with tequilla.

And you mix that wit’ a little bad advice,

on one of them bad nights.

Yall have a bad fight,

and you talkin’ bout her family her aunts and sh#t.

And she say, “Muhf**ka yo mama’s a b^tch!”

You know, domestic drama and sh@t.

All the attitude.

I’ll never hit a girl, but I’ll shake the sh&t outta’ you.

But imma’ be the bigger man.

Big pimpin like jigga man. (Lyrics from Bittersweet by Kanye West)

We Need More Leaders like Kanye West

I just received an email from Ed in ’08 Executive Director Mark Lamkin with the subject “Kanye West Gets It.”

“Sunday night I watched Kanye West’s killer performance on the MTV video music awards, and now I’m watching the number of views climb for his new public service announcement for us here at the ED in 08 campaign.

Kanye West has made it. He has achieved the kind of success in his chosen field that we all wish we could achieve, and with a new album dropping today, he isn’t showing any sign of slowing down.” (Press release email from Ed in ’08 – September 13, 2007)


In a 2007 tirade riddled with expletives, Kanye said he should have won the prize for his video “Touch The Sky,” because it “cost a million dollars, Pamela Anderson was in it. I was jumping across canyons. If I don’t win, the awards show loses credibility,” Kanye said. (AP)

That Kanye West is quite the role model.

Wow! We educators sure are lucky to have an infantile, petulant and misogynistic rapper on our team. I guess that’s how Gates and Broad roll.

I guess the best we can hope for is that Gates, Broad and West will pop a cap in TAKS scores.

Put your hands in the air and wave ‘em like you just don’t care!


Sidebar: Read what Diane Ravitch, member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institute and former Reagan Asst. Secretary of Education has to say about The Broad Prize.


References:

Education_Sector. (2007). Schwarzenegger speaks. Schwarzenegger speaks. Retrieved May 4, 2007, from http://www.quickanded.com/2007/05/schwarzenneger-speaks.html.

Heszenhorn, D. M. (2007, 4/25/07). Billionaires start $60 million schools effort. New York Times, p. 21.

Kozol, J. (2007). Letters to a young teacher. NY: Crown.

Mcintosh, D. (2007). Schools “Broad” Agenda. Schools “Broad” Agenda. Retrieved 32.26, from http://www.wweek.com/editorial/3226/7507/.

Originally published Thursday, September 13, 2007 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D

Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

An old friend and colleague got a new job at an education marketing/communication company where he believed they wanted actual content. He asked me to share some views on educational leadership. So, I took the time to formulate responses for his august publication. Sadly, it appears that the new publication seeks to be a low-rent version of EdSurge, focused on aggregating links and pro-vendor happy talk. Therefore, I humbly share the unpublished interview with my dozen[1] of loyal social media readers.

Question: What do educators need to know today?

  1. Shameless self-promotion is the key to all good things in education.
    Sixteen years of politics have successfully eroded the public’s confidence in public education. Every school needs a Minister of Propaganda to inform the community of the wonderful things happening in classrooms. If the adults feel incapable of performing this role, find a fifteen year-old student to deputize.
  2. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
    I once heard President Clinton say, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Put down the Twitter machine, read some books, attend conferences, and learn from great educators.
  3. I want to live in a world where kids wake up at three AM clamoring to get back to school to work on a project they care about and where teachers ask themselves, “How do I make this the best seven hours of a kid’s life?”
  4. There is nothing to be gained from reading “get rich quick” books sold at airport gift shops.
    Thomas Friedman, Frank Bruni, Steven Covey, Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen, and Dan Pink are no match for Herbert Kohl, John Dewey, Loris Malaguzzi, Seymour Papert, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, or Frank Smith. A suggested reading list may be found at http://cmkfutures.com/reading/
  5. The current fascination with “Big Data Analytics” and “AI” will result in classrooms none of you will send your kids to.
    Rather than wait for a dystopian future, there are things we can do today to make schools better places for learning.
  6. We need to fight amnesia.
    Since “No Child Left Behind,” mountains of wisdom and evidence have been erased from our professional practice. For example, the debate over approaches to literacy ranges all of the way from punitive phonics to painful phonics. Sound commonsense practices, such as whole language, are no longer even debated.
  7. Removing agency from teachers makes them less effective, not more.
  8. It is time for urgency.
    As Jonathan Kozol says, “You are only 7 once.” Microcomputers have now been in schools for close to two generations. It is high time we stop debating the merits of modernity.
  9. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
    We can afford a multimedia laptop and cello for every child.
  10. If every school had a strong instrumental music program, there might not be a President Trump.
  11. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” – Deborah Meier
  12. Pearson is not your friend.

Question: When did a deep knowledge of teaching practices and education philosophy become a hindrance?

Around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risk, legislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery. The art of teaching and self-contained interdisciplinary elementary classrooms were replaced with departmentalized, mechanical efficiency schemes.

Unqualified is the new qualified. Appointing unqualified folks, like Joel Klein or Betsy DeVos, to leadership positions signals a corrosive message throughout the school system – educators can not be trusted to lead schools.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the anti-intellectual assault on public education led by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, and Teach for America. It is preposterous to argue against continuing education for educators. Why isn’t there Hedgefund Trader for America or Surgeon for America?

Question: What are the top three things Gary Stager University would teach prospective teachers and principals?

  1. Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Learning is a verb and not the direct result of having been taught. Learning is natural. Children do not need to be tricked or coerced into learning when engaged in meaningful pursuits. Whenever faced with a classroom decision, educators should rely on the mantra, “Less Us, More Them.” Students always profit when maximum agency is shifted to them.
  2. The “project” should be the smallest unit of concern to educators. Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Experiences are best supported through interesting learner-centerered projects.
  3. Classroom management is only necessary when you go into a classroom thinking you need to manage it. We need to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children in order to create productive contexts for learning. If your temperament and worldview are better suited to being a prison guard, you have made a serious vocational error.

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Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction

Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
gary@stager.org

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Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement

 

Abstract

In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.

 

Paper

Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.

The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)

 

THE MAKER MOVEMENT

At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.

As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)

Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.

In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.

“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the computer.

In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.

Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.

 

Making Megachange?

Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.

“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)

Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.

Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.

There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)

Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.

Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.

The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.

The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.

“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)

 

BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING

Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)

If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.

Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:

  1. That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
  2. The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
  3. If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.

Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”

The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.

Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.

  • Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
  • Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
  • What are the goals of learning to program?
  • How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
  • What can kids make with a computer?
  • Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
  • What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
  • What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?

We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.

In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.

Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.

In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)

The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)

If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.

 

Coding through school-colored glasses

Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.

The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.

In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.

“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.

 

EPISTEMOLOGICAL POLITICS

At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.

“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)

Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)

 

The Rise of Instructionism

In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.

Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.

When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)

The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?

“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)

Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)

 

SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?

In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.

Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.

One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.

Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.

It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.

Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.

 

FD 100

Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.

“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)

It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.

Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.

 

References

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ASU+GSV Summit. (2014). 2014 ASU+GSV Summit to feature Gov. Jeb Bush, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and more than 225 game-changing education companies [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.bizjournals.com/prnewswire/press_releases/2014/03/17/NY84960

Ayers, R. (2010). What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point. Washington Post, 27.

Berry, M. (2013). Computing in the National Curriculum – A guide for primary teachers. London: Computing At School.

Betters, E. (2014). Code.org’s Hour of Code campaign kicks off: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg will teach you to write basic lines of code. Pocket-Lint.com. Retrieved April 15, 2014, 2014, from http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/125707-code-org-s-hour-of-code-campaign-kicks-off-bill-gates-mark-zuckerberg-will-teach-you-to-write-basic-lines-of-code

Blume, H. (2014). LAUSD’s Quest to See Full iPad Curriculum Comes Up Short. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-0209-lausd-digital-20140211,0,304522.story – axzz30F68qhj9

Buechley, L. (2013, October 28, 2013). FabLearn@School 2013 Conference Closing Keynote. Paper presented at the Leah Buechley, Stanford University.

Burns, J. (2012). School ICT To Be Replaced by Computer Science Programme. BBC News. Retrieved April 25, 2014, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/education-16493929

Crotty, J. M. (2014, March 31, 2014). Is Christie-Backed One Newark Reform Plan Good for City’s Studentsq. Forbes.

Delevett, P. (2014, March 7, 2014). Partovi Twins Quietly Emerge as Top Silicon Valley Angel Investors. San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved from http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_25297022/ali-hadi-partovi-twins-silicon-valley-angel-investors

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Department of Education. (2013b). Computing Programmes of Study: Key Stages 3 and 4 UK National Curriculum. London.

Edutopia. (2013). Should Coding be the “New Foreign Language” Requirement? Edutopia. Retrieved from Edutopia website: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/coding-new-foreign-language-requirement-helen-mowers

Ericson, B., & Guzdial, M. (2014). Measuring demographics and performance in computer science education at a nationwide scale using AP CS data. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 45th ACM technical symposium on Computer science education, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Furber, S. (2012). Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools. The Royal Society, London.

Gardiner, B. (2014, March 23, 2014). Adding Coding to the Curriculum. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/world/europe/adding-coding-to-the-curriculum.html?_r=0

Generation_WHY (Producer). (1998, March 16, 2011). Seymour Papert on Generation WHY and Kid Power. Retrieved from http://blog.genyes.org/index.php/2010/02/20/seymour-papert-on-generation-yes-kid-power/

Gershenfeld, N. (2005). Fab: the coming revolution on your desktop–from personal computers to personal fabrication. Arizona: Basic Books.

Greelish, D. (2013, April 2, 2013). An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay. Time.

Guggenheim, D., Kimball, B., Chilcott, L., Strickland, B., Rhee, M., Weingarten, R., . . . Cassidy, J. (2011). Waiting for” Superman”: Paramount Home Entertainment.

Guzdial, M. (2006). Computing for Everyone: Improving Global Competitiveness and Understanding of the World. Retrieved September, 10, 2007.

Guzdial, M. (2014). Why Counting CS as a Foreign Language Credit is a Bad Idea from CSTA Blog. Retrieved from http://computinged.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/why-counting-cs-as-a-foreign-language-credit-is-a-bad-idea-from-csta-blog/

Guzdial, M., & Reed, D. (2014). Eyes forward. Commun. ACM, 57(4), 10-11. doi: 10.1145/2581795

Jalopy, M., Torrone, P., & Hill, S. (2005). The Maker\’s Bill of Rights. from http://archive.makezine.com/04/ownyourown/

Johnstone, B. (2003). Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning. Seattle: iUniverse.

Karp, S. (2010). Superhero school reform heading your way: Now playing in Newark, NJ. Rethinking Schools, 25(3), 12-17.

Kay, A. (1996). Revealing the Elephant: The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education. Educom Review, 31(4), 22.

Martinez, S.-L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Merlo, S. (2014, January 1st, 2014). The Year of 100 Maker Faires.   Retrieved April 1, 2014, 2014, from http://makezine.com/2014/01/01/the-year-of-100-maker-faires/

Miner, B. (2011). The Ultimate $uperpower: Supersized Dollars Drive” Waiting for” Superman”” Agenda. Rethinking Schools, 25(2), 18-22.

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Papert, S. (1984). Computer as Mudpie. In D. Peterson (Ed.), Intelligent Schoolhouse: Readings on Computers and Learning. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company.

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Papert, S., & Franz, G. (1987). Computer as Material: Messing About with Time. Teachers College Record, 89(3).

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer Artificial Intelligence Memo # 248. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Quinn, H., Schweingruber, H., & Keller, T. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas: National Academies Press.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools: Random House LLC.

Ravitch, D. (2014, March 27, 2014). New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters. New York Review of Books.

Severns, M. (2013, Mar. 28, 2013 2:23 ). Whatever Happened to the $100 Million Mark Zuckerberg Gave to Newark Schools. Mother Jones.

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Stager, G. (2014, Winter 2014). What’s the Maker Movement and Why Should I Care? Scholastic Administrator, 43-45.

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Strauss, V. (2013, January 6, 2013). The Secret E-mails About Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Donation to Newark schools. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/06/the-secret-e-mails-about-mark-zuckerbergs-100-million-to-newark-schools/

Strauss, V. (2014, January 6, 2013). Netflix’s Reed Hastings Has a Big Idea: Kill Elected School Boards. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/06/the-secret-e-mails-about-mark-zuckerbergs-100-million-to-newark-schools/

Tan, S. (2013, May 18, 2013). Khan Academy Founder Returns Home as Big Name in U.S. Scholl Reform. New Orleans Times Picayune. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2013/05/khan_academy_founder_returns_h.html

Tomazin, F. (2014, April 20, 2014). Plug Pulled on Schools’ Disastrous Ultranet Computer System. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/plug-pulled-on-schools-disastrous-ultranet-computer-system-20140419-36xse.html

Vise, D. d. (2011, february 28, 2011). Bill Gates Talks About Teacher Pay, Class Size. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/college-inc/2011/02/bill_gates_talks_about_teacher.html

 

The following is an attempt to share some of my objections to Common Core in a coherent fashion. These are my views on a controversial topic. An old friend I hold in high esteem asked me to share my thoughts with him. If you disagree, that’s fine. Frankly, I spent a lot of time I don’t have creating this document and don’t really feel like arguing about the Common Core. The Common Core is dying even if you just discovered it.

This is not a research paper, hence the lack of references. You can Google for yourself. Undoubtedly, this post contains typos as well. I’ll fix them as I find them.

This critique shares little with the attacks from the Tea Party or those dismissed by the Federal Education Secretary or Bill Gates as whiney parents.

I have seven major objections to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

  1. The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem.
  2. The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations.
  3. The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate.
  4. The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design.
  5. Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences.
  6. The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education.
  7. The requirement that CCSS testing be conducted electronically adds unnecessary complexity, expense, and derails any chance of computers being used in a creative fashion to amplify student potential.

The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem

The professed rationale for the Common Core is based on several patently ridiculous assumptions. These include:

  • There is a sudden epidemic of bad teaching in American schools.
  • There has never been a way for parents to know how their children are doing in school.
  • Curriculum varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the United States.

I am no apologist for the current state of public (or private) education in America. There is a shortage of imagination, love, and commitment to knowing every child in order to amplify her potential. However, there is abundant scholarship by Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, Deborah Meier, and others demonstrating that more American kids are staying in school longer than at any time in history. If we control for poverty, America competes quite favorably against any other nation in the world, if you care about such comparisons.

Parents have ample ways of knowing how their children are doing; from speaking with them, meeting with teachers, looking at their work, and the excessive number of standardized tests already administered to American school children. Some places in America spend as long as several months per school year on testing, not including practice tests or the test-prep curriculum.

At best, the Common Core State Standards ensure that if a kid moves from Maine to Mobile, they won’t miss the monkey lesson. Such uniformity of instruction based on arbitrary curricular topics is impossible to enforce and on the wrong side of history. As my colleague and mentor Seymour Papert said, “At best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the world and yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is important enough to teach.” Schools should prepare kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with the confidence and competence necessary to overcome any obstacle, even if only to discover that there is more to learn.

The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations

Other once great nations have embraced nutty ideas like national curricula, but such policies were voted upon by legislators willing to raise their hand and be held accountable for their vote. The CCSS is a de-facto national curriculum created by corporate forces and anonymous unaccountable bureaucrats. State education departments and local districts surviving savage cuts in state education funding can hardly afford to reject the Common Core when its implementation brings with it billions of dollars in Federal funding from the Obama administration. Americans would never tolerate a national curriculum. That’s why the Common Core was required as a backdoor vehicle for enforcing instructional uniformity.

CCSS advocates assert that the standards were written by Governors and teachers. This claim is laughable.

The two major forces behind the Common Core, aside from the Federal Department of Education, are Bill Gates and multinational testing/publishing conglomerate, Pearson. The Gates Foundation has spent up to $2.3 billion on astroturf groups lobbying on behalf of The Common Core. (more info here)

While Gates is driven by ideology or a misguided sense of philanthropy, Pearson stands to profit handsomely. They are the largest education publisher in the USA. They also lead in producing and scoring standardized tests. The controversial PARCC test that recently made headlines when they spied on kids’ social media accounts and got government goons to enforce their testing regime. Add test-prep curriculum, worksheets, professional development, and their recent forays into teacher and administrator credentialing, and you quickly see how Pearson controls the entire education ecosystem – profiting at every step of the process they created. Not much imagination is required to see Pearson running publicly funded charter schools created in the rubble created by the Common Core. Heads they win. Tails kids and teachers lose. (Read the Politico Pearson exposé, “No Profit Left Behind”)

The Common Core State Standards only apply to public schools. Neither Bill Gates or President Obama would tolerate sending their children to schools slavishly adhering to this curricular diet intended for other people’s children. Surely the Gates and Obama children will be career and college ready in their lovely schools with art, music, blocks, field trips, well-stocked libraries, and teachers trusted to design curriculum.

The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate

The Common Core State Standards are focused on college and career readiness all the way down to kindergarten!

Please explain Cavalieri’s Principle. I have yet to meet an adult who knows what this is, but it appears in the Common Core High School Geometry Standards.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSG.GMD.A.2

Give an informal argument using Cavalieri’s principle for the formulas for the volume of a sphere and other solid figures.

Read the voluminous CCSS Math or CCSS English Language Arts standards for yourself.

Thankfully, the CCSS only currently exist for Math and English Language Arts. This means that other subjects in the arts, sciences, and social sciences will not be standardized. However, it also means they are less likely to be taught in CCSS-obsessed schools.

The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design

Promoters of the Common Core shrug off criticisms by blaming teachers for poorly implementing the standards. This line of attack is worse than cynical victim blaming. Allow me to explain why.

Let’s stipulate that the Common Core State Standards are a terrific idea. Our nation needs clear enforceable uniform education standards at each grade level.

If that were the case, the CCSS would be rolled-out over twelve years, not all at once. If a curricular topic typically taught in the 9th grade is moved to 7th grade by the Common Core, then many children will not have been taught those concepts, but will still be tested on them. When they inevitably fail to perform well, their teachers will be blamed and in states like New York where teacher pay and job security is tied to test scores, their teachers will be punished for doing what they have been told to do.

Scotland is rolling out a new national curriculum, but they are doing so over twelve years.

Why do you think that the Common Core was in such a hurry to implement a new K-12 curriculum at once?

Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences

Curriculum should be determined as close to the child as possible in collaboration with colleagues and reflecting the community. It is the height of arrogance to prepare instruction for children you have never met.

Uniform standards standardize (lower) expectations in the name of uniformity. The quality of education suffers when teachers have their curricular discretion challenged and replaced with a list of topics to “cover” at best, or a scripted curriculum (common in urban settings), at worst. The sheer number of Common Core standards makes depth, mastery, passion, curiosity, or other habits of mind less likely to achieve. When does a student get great at something when their education experience is strapped to an ever-accelerating treadmill?

When teachers are not required to make curricular decisions and design curriculum based on the curiosity, thinking, understanding, passion, or experience of their students, the resulting loss in teacher agency makes educators less thoughtful and reflective in their practice, not more. The art of teaching has been sacrificed at the expense of reducing pedagogical practice to animal control and content delivery.

My standards for what children should be able to know and do extend far beyond that which is taught or tested by the CCSS.

The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education

The singular genius of George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation (kicked-up a notch by Obama’s Race-to-the-Top) was the recognition that many parents hate school, but love their kids’ teachers. If your goal is to privatize education, you need to concoct a way to convince parents to withdraw support for their kid’s teacher. A great way to achieve that objective is by misusing standardized tests and then announcing that your kid’s teacher is failing your kid. This public shaming creates a manufactured crisis used to justify radical interventions before calmer heads can prevail.

These standardized tests are misunderstood by the public and policy-makers while being used in ways that are psychometrically invalid. For example, it is no accident that many parents confuse these tests with college admissions requirements. Using tests designed to rank students mean that half of all test-takers be below the norm and were never intended to measure teacher efficacy.

The test scores come back up to six months after they are administered, long after a child advances to the next grade. Teachers receive scores for last year’s students, with no information on the questions answered incorrectly. These facts make it impossible to use the testing as a way of improving instruction, the stated aim of the farcical process.

I am not willing to give up on public schools because that’s where the children are. Public education is the bedrock of our democracy.

The negative trajectory of technology use required by the CCSS

You will find no greater advocate for the use of computational technology in education than me. However, the requirement that the CCSS assessment exams driving the entire Common Core effort be conducted electronically has a deeply disturbing effect on educational computing.

Instead of using computers to create, program, edit, compose, publish, or collaborate, the Common Core electronic assessment requirement is causing schools, districts, and states to invest exorbitant sums on large numbers of often under-powered “devices” for test-taking and test-prep purposes. Existing computers will be tied up in these assessment activities as well. The security requirements of the CCSS exams are causing schools to lock-down computers in ways deleterious to learning and student empowerment. The fact that lots of “devices” need to be purchased for testing too often results in a diminution in computational power available to children in school. Constructive activities such as nusic composition, filmmaking, computer programming, physical computing, robotics, etc.. are rendered more difficult or impossible when technology purchases are shaped by testing requirements.

There are technical complexities and numerous pain points associated with this online testing as well. Many schools lack adequate network infrastructure to support hundreds or thousands of children being online at once. The testing software is buggy and prone to failure, especially since testing occurs nationwide at approximately the same time (and for longer than a Bar Exam). The testing software itself is awful and plagued by horrendous user-interface issues. Kids are being penalized for not being able to navigate buggy and confusing software, even if they understand the concept being tested. Poor(er) children with less access to computing activities are even more disadvantaged by the awful test navigation. In other words, much of what is being measured by the online Common Core tests will be a student’s ability to work the testing software, not valuable educational content. If you don’t believe me, try one of the online test samples for the PARCC assessment.

One last thing

It is particularly ironic how much of the public criticism of the Common Core is related to media accounts and water cooler conversations of the “crazy math” being taught to kids. There are actually very few new or more complex concepts in the Common Core than previous math curricula. In fact, the Common Core hardly challenges any of the assumptions of the existing mathematics curriculum. The Common Core English Language Arts standards are far more radical. Yet, our innumerate culture is up in arms about the “new new math” being imposed by the Common Core.

What is different about the Common Core approach to mathematics, particularly arithmetic, is the arrogant imposition of specific algorithms. In other words, parents are freaking out because their kids are being required to solve problems in a specific fashion that is different from how they solve similar problems.

This is more serious than a matter of teaching old dogs new tricks. The problem is teaching tricks at all. There are countless studies by Constance Kamii and others demonstrating that any time you teach a child the algorithm, you commit violence against their mathematical understanding. Mathematics is a way of making sense of the world and Piaget teaches us that it is not the job of the teacher to correct the child from the outside, but rather to create the conditions in which they correct themselves from the inside. Mathematical problem solving does not occur in one way no matter how forcefully you impose your will on children. If you require a strategy competing with their own intuitions, you add confusion that results in less confidence and understanding.

Aside from teaching one algorithm (trick), another way to harm a child’s mathematical thinking development is to teach many algorithms for solving the same problem. Publishers make this mistake frequently. In an attempt to acknowledge the plurality of ways in which various children solve problems, those strategies are identified and then taught to every child. Doing so adds unnecessary noise, undermines personal confidence, and ultimately tests memorization of tricks (algorithms) at the expense of understanding.

This scenario goes something like this. Kids estimate in lots of different ways. Let’s teach them nine or ten different ways to estimate, and test them along the way. By the end of the process, many kids will be so confused that they will no longer be able to perform the estimation skill they had prior to the direct instruction in estimation. Solving a problem in your head is disqualified.


These articles do a pretty good job of supporting my arguments above:

© 2015 Gary S. Stager
All Rights Reserved

Did you hear the news? President Obama wrote his first line of code yesterday to bring attention to Computer Science Week and Code.org’s Marie Antoinette-style Hour of Code. (a “global movement” bankrolled by billionaires and major corporations) I suppose fracking is a global movement too, but I digress.

I can get past the President of the United States pretending that he’s some dumb guy capable of performing a trivial task on a computer. Huh huh, look at me. Duh, “You gotta slow down, ’cause I’m an old man…

I’m OK with tech corporations successfully engineering a publicity stunt with cute kids and the President even if their real objectives are easing restrictions on H1-B visas enabling tech companies to hire programmers from other countries (likely cheaper than hiring Americans). All of that is just business, lobbying, and public relations. I salute the propagandists who made it all happen! Lobbying and selling stuff is the American way. (cue: start humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic)

None of the stagecraft I just described is evil.

What I will not abide is using Newark, NJ middle school students as human shields as part of a larger agenda to destroy the public schools in their already exploited and disadvantaged community. (I’ve yet to determine if they are charter school students)

History does not begin with Code.org and the Silicon Valley smartypants who fund it. EVERY Newark public elementary and middle school taught Logo programming for more than a decade to every student. I know. I used to teach the incredibly passionate, dedicated, and competent Newark teachers. Announcing that the seven largest cities in the USA will now commit to offer a middle or high school computer science class does nothing to explain why computer science, art, music and other rich subjects have become extinct in urban school districts. In fact, it is the very heavy-handed Gates-funded and Zuckerberg-approved education policies that the Obama Administration has inflicted on districts, such as Newark, that has made an hour of looking up from anything but a multiple-choice worksheet for an hour cause for a White House celebration.

Code.org, the organization behind Hour of Code is heavily financed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In 2010, Zuckerberg gave a $100 million dollar “donation” to the Newark Public Schools as long as they would bust teacher unions, focus on endless test prep, and replace public schools with charters. The legality of the “donation” is still in question. What is not in dispute, is the fact that Zuckerberg got almost nothing for his investment/purchase/donation.

President Obama rarely, if ever visits a public school. He likes charters. Gates likes charters. Zuckerberg likes charter schools. They all hate teacher unions. I documented the President’s antipathy towards organized teachers back in 2008 in the Huffington Post’s First We Kill the Teacher Unions.  In that article, written before President Obama’s election, I detailed how the wunderkind Newark Mayor, now Senator, needed help in busting teacher unions and privatizing the public schools in his community. Bill Gates’ hostility towards organized labor of any kind is well documented in the countless labor violations Microsoft was adjudicated guilty of during his leadership of the company.

President Obama also likes “workforce” development gimmicks in education. One of his favorite “public/private” (corporate) projects is P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, NY (another city decimated by education policies enacted by unqualified ideologues). The “miracle” of that school’s success has even been called into question.

In my March 2014 article, Newark, NJ: Larger Class Sizes and Unqualified Teachers – Perfect Together, I discuss the chaos being caused by the “One Newark” being advanced by the state-appointed, locally unaccountable, and Teach-for-America trained superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson. “One Newark” seeks to fire up to 1,000 teachers and privatize more public schools as charters. Two decades after suspending democracy in Newark, disbanding the local school board, and taking control over the local district, the State of New Jersey is never to be blamed for the real or perceived failure of the Newark schools. Teacher blaming, name-calling, and community antagonism has become a substitute for education policy. The local unpopularity of One Newark inspired a high school teacher and former teachers union President to be elected Mayor of Newark and the superintendent no longer feels safe attending public meetings in her own school district. The Mayor of Newark has detailed what he believes to be the legal violations behind One Newark in a four-page letter to President Obama.

Let’s review. President Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are all fans of charter schools. None of them, or their friend Cory Booker,  care much for the sorts of pesky teacher unions fighting for jobs and democracy in Newark. Zuckerberg is a major force behind Code.org and spent $100,000,000 in Newark. Each of these men is a proponent of the get-fought, back-to-basics, test constantly model of “reform.” Is it a coincidence that Newark students were chosen to be props during the President’s celebration of Hour of Code?

Addendum: While I have specific pedagogical issues with Hour-of-Code, this post is a plea to pause before we celebrate a singular hour of good in a school district savaged by the very same patrons.


I will share my issues with the implementation of Hour of Code in a future post.

Ah, balance!

Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.

  • Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
  • Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
  • Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
  • Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
  • A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.

I could go on.

Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.

Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.

Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.

Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.

Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling. That simply is not so.

The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.

When schools seek balance, the weeds always kill the flowers!

I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,”  by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”

balance