Spoiling the Bunch

Apple, Inc. just confirmed Dr. Papert’s opening paragraph from Teaching Children Thinking.

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

– Seymour Papert <strike(1980)(1970)*

Apple’s Classroom App

Apple is on the wrong side of history with its Classroom App. Everything about the app screams distrust. It’s heavy on content delivery (as if learners don’t construct knowledge), control (did I say you could tap that icon?), management (apparently, computer literacy is dead), locking out students (Johnny went to the Wiki one too many times), and shared devices (let’s call it collaboration!). Read the Getting Started with Classroom, it’s all there.

Alfie Kohn put forth a compelling case for being skeptical about announcements like this one in his post about The Overselling of EdTech:

There’s a jump-on-the-bandwagon feel to how districts are pouring money into computers and software programs – money that’s badly needed for, say, hiring teachers. But even if ed tech were adopted as thoughtfully as its proponents claim, we’re still left with deep reasons to be concerned about the outmoded model of teaching that it helps to preserve — or at least fails to help us move beyond. To be committed to meaningful learning requires us to view testimonials for technology with a terabyte’s worth of skepticism.

The less we trust students the fewer opportunities they have to develop the very agency over their own learning that we aspire for them. Our skeptical eye is much needed in these days of edu-preneurship, edtech startups and the dreamy influence of Silicon Valley giants.

*UPDATED: Gary Stager pointed out (below) that the quote is from 1970 though the paper I cited is from 1980. This further emphasizes that Apple and most other computer hardware/software companies don’t know history and continue to ignore research on learning.

Without Sense of Hierarchy

“You realize how there’s no ceiling and how everyone is going to be able to contribute to everybody else’s learning no matter where they came from, when they got here or where they were at.”

In this short (1:35) video reflection, Angela Jochum, an ICT Integration Coordinator at the Frankfurt International School, shares her experience at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2014. The phrase that stays with me is when she talks about on there being “no sense of hierarchy.”

Join us this July 11-15 at Constructing Modern Knowledge!
Her reflection illustrates the absence of a hierarchy that is prevalent in many educational settings. A hierarchy constructed of perceived, and often intentional, divisive levels between the “smart” kids and “dumb” kids. Unfortunately this is plays out in classrooms (and teacher lounges) around the world where kids are ranked and sorted by grades and test scores. Angela’s is describing how CMK is wholly a different experience.

At CMK, people from various educational institutions (i.e. – schools, museums, etc.) come together for four days to do projects they’ve never done before. CMK participants often feel a bit uncomfortable the first day. Angela experienced the notion of learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. From what I recall, her self-selected project group also consisted of a kindergarten teacher and a AP physics teacher all learning together to do things each of them had never done before.

CMK attendees experience something that is not like a most conferences where attendees shuffle from hall A to hall B listening to one-direction presentations. They hear wacky and whimsical ideas that seem to have no place in serious professional learning. They wander the plethora of learning kits, google what an Arduino does, peruse volumes of books, and wonder what the point of it all is. Oh! They listen, chat and dine with stellar educational heroes too!

Everyone learns at CMK. Largely, it is about experiencing what it is to be a learner again. Learning from and with others.  In doing so, we can begin to empathize with our children, our students and fellow teachers in the modern landscape of learning.

Doing the Math

Joey Hudy, Maker

In February, a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things interview with Joe Hudy was posted on the Make blog where he shares projects, experiences, tools and people that inspire him.  In response to the tools he can’t live without question, Joey says “my calculator watch because I don’t know my multiplication and division tables.”  This is a 16 year old who doesn’t know his math facts.

You might be thinking “Terrible, not knowing his multiplication and division tables at age 16!” Well, think again, Joey was recently named one of the 10 Smartest Kids in the World (And the Crazy Math Problems They Can Solve).

How does a kid who admittedly does not know multiplication and division tables get named one of the top ten smartest kids in the world?

My hunch lies in how he applies math as opposed to how school teaches math. Nearly all math is taught and problems are presented in abstract forms.   Typically, math is taught in sequential and increasingly difficult series of skills and courses.  Always preparing for the next level or concept with nary a meaningful use in sight.  “You’ll need it in middle school” is not good enough. What Joey has done is make the math he uses concrete, applied to the projects he designs and makes.  I’m quite sure he has collaborators and teachers who help him figure out what he needs to know and do.  When the time comes for using math, he uses the tool he finds best, his calculator watch. It’s not hard to imagine Joey coming to a problem, lifting his wrist, punching a few keys, finding an answers and moving on to the next step in a real project.

So why do we fret over math tables?  What’s the real purpose of memorizing math facts? Do the benefits truly outweigh the consequences of emphasizing math facts to young children?

Gears of My Childhood

tamc0356Each time I read Papert’s essay about the gears of his childhood, I feel a little remorse for some of the more episodic moments I had growing up.  Though that remorse fades as I realize that all is not lost and consider my “gears” more as seeds for later realization.

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I remember waiting for the delivery truck.  Everyday.  For two weeks.  It was such an eternity for me.  I was awaiting an RC car kit. One I had saved for with money I had earned. The Grasshopper had a 380 motor, shocks, big sandpaddle studded rear tires, an ABS resin chassis and a 2-channel radio with 1 servo.

Upon arrival, I tore through the box and sorted out the pieces.  I remember reading through the directions taking it all in.  Wondering if I could complete the kit.  Several days later I finished putting the Grasshopper together and drove it in the driveway until the battery died down.  I raced my friend, who had a similar car, and as all boys do, crashed the car numerous times.  I often went “under the hood” to tweak a screw here and there.  I even tested the servos to be certain they were calibrated even though there wasn’t anything really wrong with them.  I loved peering in on the moving parts, unhooking and reattaching wires, and testing how the shocks worked.  I was so amazed that one could control a machine remotely from several hundred yards away.

Despite having this early interest, and having a a mechanical engineer for a father, the tinkering and kit building faded.  While I didn’t go into engineering or other related field, the experiences I had with putting the car kit together, along with having a space to do so, we had a great basement with plenty of tools and workbenches, was the dormant seed for my current interest in tinkering and making for learning.

I want the children I work with, including my own child, to have a variety of these “gears” experiences.  I don’t mean that it must involve actual gears as Papert’s and, at least partially, mine did.  I want children to experience Papert’s powerful idea around constructionist learning.  My goal is to create a Maker Studio in my school where children can tinker and make using not only digital technologies that have garnered so much attention, but ones that bridge the physical world with the digital and vice versa.