CMK: Not Your Father’s Conference

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending Constructing Modern Knowledge (#CMK10), a one of a kind learning institute. The “minds on” institute did not have sessions to shuffle in and out of in hopes of catching a few nuggets that I might address when I return to the “real world”.  No, this was different.

The entire institute was what a classroom can be and I’m sure, in some places, is. There wasn’t the latest in revolutionary technology gadgets being touted, but there was plenty of fun and purposeful technology to be used.  The engagement and empowerment that we all experienced helped develop a community of practice within which we felt comfortable moving about the room asking questions and answering others.  Yeah, we had one room and it was fantastic. We sat on the floor, spilled out into the hallway and went out to the local convenient store for supplies.  Well, I’m not really sure if anyone did that, but we could have and that empowerment is important.  The environment had many books, treats and beverages, and trinkets that inspired projects and were just plain fun to play with (i.e. – marshmallow gun & Incredible Hulk fists).  From the first brainstorming session to the presentations there was lots of noise, to which, as Gary pointed out in his closing, no one complained.  Even the hotel staff was fond of the bubble machine floating bubbles over those dining in the cafe. This is good-natured stuff. Chris Lehmann sums up the environment well in his reflections of CMK.

No, CMK is not your father’s conference.

The speakers were excellent.  The collection of minds that Gary put together for CMK is astounding.  Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, James Loewen, Marvin Minsky, Brian Silverman, Cynthia Solomon, Peter H. Reynolds, Artemis Papert (Seymour’s daughter) & John Stetson were not only speakers, but participants and teachers as well.  They stuck around, were genuinely interested in our ideas, projects and thoughts about education and learning.  Artemis even offered me a one-on-one tutorial on TurtleArt despite the fact she and Brian had a large group appointment scheduled (we had appointments) the next day.

No, CMK is not your father’s conference.

The stark contrast between going to sessions and working playing through a project is one of the largest differences.  I approached CMK focused on a couple of things.  First, I wanted to collect ideas for the Playful Inventors Workshops I will be leading in a few weeks (for educators) and during the next year (with students).  Secondly, having always been envious of gearheads (people who are competent at motors, gears and the like) I wanted to use CMK to start learning more about gears in order to help students design and create wonderful things while learning through active science, engineering and math.  I was successful in both and will be trying to write more about the experiences here.

I did not leave CMK with a new tool (though I did share the Lego Tool with anyone cared to listen or try it) or the latest strategy for using Web 2.0 tools.  Here are some of my takeaways.

  • what it means to dive deeply into learning
  • to take time
  • to walk away from something and come back to it later
  • to develop a better environment where learners feel comfortable and safe (not just physically safe, but mentally safe to take a risk, ask a “silly question” or challenge someone (thanks to John Stetson for being the gear bully and not just giving the answer to our problem of torque).
  • to have fun and play (even if it involves flying marshmallows)

No, CMK is not your father’s conference.  It’s not a conference at all.  It’s a learning experience.

Some Thoughts on Constructivism

I stumbled upon this Straight talk on constructivism post by Robert Talbert from 2008 this morning. I am a big believer in constructivism so I took interest right away. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about constructivism in education and I’m not sure his post helps to paint a clearer picture. Talbert, a math and computer science professor, writes:

“Constructivism, when used with the right kinds of students and in the right ways, can be quite effective. But it’s important to remember that not all students are ready for this, and not all material is taught effectively this way. When I teach geometry to junior and senior math majors, it’s almost entirely constructivist, because the process of mathematical investigation and discovery is precisely what I am trying to teach them (through the medium of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry). But I’d be crazy to try constructivism at that level on, say, a precalculus class full of students who have little skill in and absolutely no taste for math at all. Those students aren’t dumb, but they need structure and guidance a lot more than they need the supposed thrill of mathematical discovery.”

What I think Talbert is missing here is that constructivism is not a classroom technique, it is a theory of learning, described as such in the link he provides in his post.  Keep in mind, he is writing about college students here and suggests college students are not ready for constructivist learning experiences. He states that “not all students are ready for [constructivist learning experiences].” While I can see this being true at this point in time, I don’t think this need be so.

I think it is fairly obvious that most teachers at the K-12 level are using traditional theories (i.e. – behaviorism or cognitivism) more than constructivist approaches to learning. Talbert suggests that if students have been “drilled” enough, that by college, they would be ready for constructivist approaches to learning.

Isn’t that what’s happening now?  Then why are not all students ready?

I believe the opposite is the most effective approach.  Constructivist learning environments and experiences can be set up in ways that students are, not just engaged, but empowered to acquire and refine necessary skills. The “drill and practice” approach to skills should come from the learner’s understanding that they are important, not because it will be good for them some future time that they cannot see or comprehend.

How does constructivism look in your schools?

Photo Credit: College of Education Constructivism by derekcx