June 14, 2024

Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling

Warning: Educators will be criticized below! You have been warned.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an episode of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show.  In this whimsical YouTube video, eight year-old Sylvia teaches you about designing, engineering and programming a variety of projects using the open-source Arduino robotics controller. With the poise, wit and clarity of a seasoned television host, Sylvia explains the electronic principles of light–emitting diodes, resisters, potentiometers, grounds and compiling the program you download to create a strobe light. Next, she teaches viewers how to construct a Randomly Influenced Finger Flute that uses a square wave at a variable number of hertz to make the Arduino play music.

This is no burping into VoiceThread!

Sylvia disposes of the ISTE technology standards in the first fourteen seconds of her video. By following her motto, “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something,” she learns a host of powerful ideas, engages countless habits of mind and demonstrates her knowledge by constructing something shareable. Sylvia’s video embodies Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism. In fact, many of the fluencies displayed by Sylvia are discussed in Papert and Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”

Don’t you dare tell me that the demands of the curriculum preclude time for such classroom projects. Kids like Sylvia remind us of the authentic nature of learning and the efficiency of project-based learning. Several years worth of lectures on physics, electronics, engineering, computer science and video production would not result in the understanding demonstrated by Sylvia; that is if elementary schools bothered to teach such subjects at all.

Engineering is concrete. Engineers make things. They experiment and tinker. If you know anything about development you recognize that knowledge construction follows a progression from concrete to the abstract. Yet, most kids are deprived of engineering experiences until they endure twelve years of abstractions. If the creative inclinations of young children were nurtured in an engineering context, their understanding of the increasingly elusive math and science facts would be developed in a meaningful natural context.

Sylvia’s father is an accomplished technology expert. So what? Public schools are designed to democratize specialized learning experiences for all children. If Sylvia was doing little more than reading off a teleprompter, then her performance would still exceed our expectations. Yet, she demonstrates so much more.

Sylvia embodies the spirit of the exploding DIY movement with the creativity of the Little Rascals and curiosity of Mr. Wizard. She’s just using the construction materials of her era. The difference is the power of computational thinking and microprocessors. Arduino microcontrollers are the Barbies of her generation.

The high crime is that kids like Sylvia will be in seventh grade, four years from now, where the curriculum awaiting them will be worthless concoctions like keyboarding instruction or “using the Google.” We insult children’s intelligence and squander their potential by serving up a curriculum of “computer appreciation” dependent on adult inadequacies or misallocated resources.

There are lots of computers in schools, but very little computing! Three decades ago, I dedicated my life to using computers constructively to amplify human potential. Back then, educational computing was built on progressive learning theories, propelled by passion of the civil rights movement and based on a notion that children could invent a better world than existed for previous generations. Sadly, I no longer recognize my own field. The powerful ideas of Dewey, Holt, Papert, not to mention Al Rogers, David Thornburg, Tom Snyder, Fred D’Ignzaio and Tom Snyder – have been replaced by a focus on filtering policies, meaningless clichés about 21st Century skills and funding concerns. I often wonder, “is edtech/ICT a legitimate discipline or just a shopping club?” Too many educational technology conferences, like ISTE, seem like a busload of foreign tourists speeding past historical monuments in order to get to the next duty-free shop.

While your district tech team wrestles with the earth-shattering decision over whether kids should write their five-paragraph essay in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, kids could be doing and learning like Sylvia. While you bathe in the warmth of your PLN with self-congratulatory tweets, Sylvia is sharing serious expertise with the world.

Tens of thousands of district tech directors, coordinators and integrators have done such a swell job that after thirty years, teachers are the last adults in the industrialized world to use computers. I feel compelled to ask, “Are the very same employees charged with inspiring teachers to use computers creating dependency and helplessness instead?”

Teachers are not imbeciles incapable of growth or felons who can’t be trusted to show Sylvia’s YouTube video in class. Each summer’s Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute demonstrates the creativity and intellectual capacity of educators when they are engaged in projects involving programming, robotics materials, microcontrollers, drawing tablets, musical bananas, soda can orchestras, bike powered LEGO iPhone chargers, animation, filmmaking, authentic problems and whimsy. During the 1980s, we taught tens of thousands of teachers computer programming and how to teach it to children.

Educators love the stories of the eleven year-old dot.com millionaire and Web stars, like Sylvia, but would you really want her in your class? Can you build upon the gifts the kids bring to you or will you force them to comply with someone else’s curriculum? Would you punish her or classify her with a learning disability for a failure to sit quietly as school repeals the 20th Century?

Failure to embrace the kids’ competence, capacity and creativity leads educators to deprive children of opportunities to achieve their potential. Worst of all, it cheats children out of the rich 21st Century childhood they deserve.

10 thoughts on “Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling

  1. I sent this link to our local superintendent. Our school board is stuck in the mind set you describe. Perhaps this will help push them over the hurdles they have created in their own minds and move them forward.

  2. Sylvia’s dad here, great article! Thank you, you flatter us, though Sylvia is really just a regular girl, like any other, with the potential to do so much more than what standard American consumer culture would lead her to be. Her mom and I saw this path of shallow technological interest and complacency we were heading down, and simply refused to be part of it.

    I’m no electronics expert, but always loved tinkering making electronics as a kid. I stopped when I had kids, but suddenly wondered why, about 5 years down the line. Turns out, there was no reason! Why can’t parents be involved in the learning experience on that ground level, exploration from multiple points of view leaves everyone a winner. So we got ourselves some lead-free solder and a couple kits, and went to work. And now we’ve heard of teachers from all over the world using her videos in the classroom, and that it opens the eyes of everyone, from 4th grade to undergrad.

    The idea to do a video was born from simply wanting to share in the learning process, but soon became the other half. Not to mention, girls everywhere need peer role models capable of more than simply consuming themselves with looks and popularity. No matter what they’re interested in, there’s a way to start making what you imagine become real, simple electronics (we’re working on an analog circuitry 555 timer episode), micro-controllers, crafts, chemistry (Copper etching mini episode comes out Tue, 9/27) .. it’s all there!

    Anyways, got to finish that last one up. Wanted to say thanks for helping get the word out, and for doing such an incredible job as well. And a quick note toward Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, Sylvia is up for an award from the Ashoka foundation, and voting begins October 5th. If you’d like to see more Sylvia shows (takes a lot of work!), vote for her! Thanks!


  3. Hi James,

    What a nice surprise!

    Thanks so much for your comments and for sharing Sylvia with us!

    I’m in South Korea working with a school and I showed one of her videos just this morning.

    Of course, I agree with you. I am not surprised when kids do extraordinary things. I am surprised when adults are surprised that kids are capable of doing extraordinary things.

    I run a quite special summer institute for educators, http://constructingmodernknowledge.com, and would love to have Sylvia be a member of our faculty. My budget is quite tight, but we should talk if you have any interest. Our faculty is full of amazing tinkerers, inventors and scientists. Our guest speakers this year include filmmaker Casey Neistat and Leah Beuchley, inventor of Lilypad Arduino. One or two more will be added ASAP.



  4. Mr. Stager

    I was intrigued and entertained by your article and Silvia’s videos but I disagree with some of the points you made. I watched Silvia’s videos and was very impressed as I could not see my self, a ninth grader at Arapahoe High School doing something that educational or high quality for a school project let alone in my free time. I am usually worried about a hockey game the next weekend or the cheerleader in my science lab, not learning how to use an Arduino or a new computer program to do something productive. This sentence from your article really struck me “While you bathe in the warmth of your PLN with self-congratulatory tweets, Sylvia is sharing serious expertise with the world.” The fact that I am currently doing a PLN(Personal Learning Network) for my english class makes me think if you are calling out my teacher. PLNs are the first time I have been exposed to blogs and all of the blog posts we have had to summarize are sending the same general message of improving education with technology.

    I respect Silvia’s devotion and love for what she is doing but she is one of few in our current education system. I, like many others in my class have just started to understand the art of blogging and personally I am pretty proud and then there are the kids like Sylvia who are clearly a level head and shoulders above kids like me when it comes to lust for knowledge. There has always been people like Sylvia who are fortunate enough to come form such supportive parents and has a love for learning and we call people like that over achievers or active learners. Its not meant to be an insult in fact the opposite but it helps show there is another side of the scale. Kids who come from divorced parents living off lower wages who cant afford home computers and struggle in school and life in general. We have to give both an equal opportunity for an education. Should we send them to different schools, or should take away Sylvia’s opportunities and give the challenged kids the same attention Sylvia needs or vis versa.

  5. Jake,

    Greetings from South Korea!

    Thanks for reading my work and for taking the time to write. My article is indeed an indictment of many educators who fail to seize the remarkable capacity of children and help them go farther than they could have gone on their own. It’s not an attack on specific teachers, nor does it negate the value of blogging, although blogging is just a new place to write.

    I don’t understand why you think that all kids could not profit from the experiences afforded Sylvia? Is it fair to blame kids for their parental involvement? Is that really determinative of a kid’s educational aptitude or achievement? As I said in the article (above), the reason we have school is to democratize such experiences and let more children benefit from them.

    Few parents are chemists or conductors or sculptors or authors. School assembles people with a variety of expertise and makes them available to more kids.



  6. @Jake

    I certainly don’t blame you for keeping your mind on such things, being 14 is.. difficult to say the least. I know it was for me! And I’m sure it will be pretty tricky for Sylvia too.

    High school is tough, especially for “active learners”. At least half of the learning going on is social in nature, and taught through direct experience, both in and outside the classroom. Sylvia gets about the same attention as the rest of her peers, sometimes even a bit less. She’s independent and always curious. One of the things we try and teach in the show, is to simply go out and experiment. To try the things that interest you, and maybe even somethings that you don’t know how to do. Going outside your comfort level and doing hands on experiments with things you might fail at, is one of the best and fastest ways to learn, no supervision needed.

    As we say, “Failure is always an option!”, and that’s a good thing. To fail properly means that your payment of time and effort has borne the fruit of nearly priceless experience in return, and the best part is that this applies to almost everything in life.

    Really, the show kinda boils down to educational inspiration. I hold no allusions that many people *actually* go out and try everything in our videos, but just the idea that she can do it, why can’t you? To go out, even without a specific project in mind and just try to make or program or craft *something*, it gets your mind working. If we do that even for a moment, then we’ve succeeded.

  7. Dr. Stager and Mr. James(unable to find last name, sorry)

    I do agree with most of the points you made in the blog post and in the recent to comments. What I was trying to say in my last comment wasn’t that i don’t think some students wouldn’t benefit from the advantages that Silvia has but would have trouble taking advantage of those advantages. I tried to make an example of myself by saying I am not tech savvy and I have many friends who fall into the same category as me and I think it was because we weren’t to exposed to computers or phones up in till middle school. If my friends and I were exposed to and used more technology in early grades in elementary school we would probably would be more prepared for all the Internet based assignments I currently have to do. If schools districts could find the funds I think it would be better to have certain core classes use computers and try to use similar programs from third or forth grade all the up to their graduation senior year of high school. I think that would allow kids like the i said in my earlier who don’t have access to computers be able to start learning and becoming use to technology so they don’t have as much troubles in high school, college or at a job site. I honestly would love to continue this conversation but I am having a lot of trouble typing due to a thumb injury and the deadline I have to post this but the more kids we have Silvia the more possibilities people have to solve global issues.

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