Thursday, March 13, 2014

On Reading Mindstorms

Reading Mindstorms should be inspirational. I love reading anything that Seymour Papert has written. His words and his vision have always rung true for me and have always motivated and inspired me to infuse the practice he calls "Constructionism" into my classroom.  Then what it is about this time through the book that I have been left with such a grey and pessimistic feeling about everything that is the state of public education 35 years after Papert wrote Mindstorms?

Could it be that I can't seem to get past Papert's prediction that school would reject the ideas he has for using computers? Not understand his vision of Mathland or the way that learners can use the computer as material, as a tool, for shaping their understanding of the world they live in and must navigate through?
"Conservatism in the world of education has become a self-perpetuating social phenomena".   pg 37 Mindstorms
To get past this negative feeling I reached into my own student's experiences with the Turtle. I have taught Microworlds in a formal setting (meaning as a 2 to 3 month unit in all my 6th and 7th grade Digital Media classes) for the past 14 years. I absolutely love it. I love the joy the students experience the first time they get the turtle to move. I love the smiles on their faces and their shrieks of delight and the way that some will jump out of their seats with their fist in the air, "I did it!" which comes out much louder then they expected, and even catches themselves off guard.

The Turtle is able to capture the imaginations of every one of my students. We begin with simple turtle geometry as described by Papert in Chapter 3. For most students this is their first time "programming" an object on the computer screen using a text based interface rather than the familiar GUI or point and click and drag interface. Because of this the students are awestruck on the abilities and seemingly magical characteristics of the turtle. I will always remember when one student turned to me, in his most serious 6th grader voice, and said "It really is amazing, what this turtle is able to do".

My students go on to tackle some very complex concepts and thinking strategies when they work through their Microworlds programs. When I observe my students working through their ideas and sharing their observations and their "code" with their classmates, I can see the learning that is happening. If learning is a verb and is an active state then why is it that we are surrounded by tests and grading practices that are grounded in data collection and traditional frameworks of receiving information through direct instruction and then measuring what student's have retained using a methodology that is disconnected and often out of context from where the information originated from in the first place.

In 1980 Papert thought children deserved better than just the recycled and refitted mathematics from traditional approaches. Why do we still keep working with the old framework today and keep struggling to force-fit the old into today's world. Papert's approaches to learning are readily and easily accepted by children, as confirmed with my students as they "make sense" of the turtle. It is time his ideas and of allowing the students to be physically immersed in their learning makes sense to adults too.

FabLearn Fellows 2014

This year I was selected as one of the 2014 FabLearn Fellows through the Stanford University Transformative Learning Technologies Lab.
"Part of a larger project sponsored by the National Science Foundation and entitled “Infusing Learning Sciences Research into Digital Fabrication in Education and the Makers’ Movement”, FabLearn Fellows brings together experienced educators from all over the world to create an open-source library of curriculum and contribute to research about the “makers” culture and digital fabrication in education."
I will be using this blog to post some of my writings and reflections that come out of the work and discussions and hope to share this amazing experience I am honored to be a part of with educators and makers.

I will continue to write about my own classroom, students, and Makerspace experiences, and plan on making this blog a more active space.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Something Exciting

There is something exciting in the air these days. It's difficult to avoid the media coverage of how programming is the "new literacy". Both adults and children are being offered all kinds of introductions to programming and coding and there doesn't seem to be any slowing down to the new websites, programs, methodologies, and philosophies, about the best way to be involved.

Whatever pedagogical path you may subscribe to, the fact of the matter is there are very few things we do these days that don't involve 1's and 0's. If we want to be makers we must also understand the physical characteristics of the project we are making.

This fall there are 20 public schools in the New York Department of Education whose students will be involved in just this kind of making. The Software Engineering Program is piloting a curriculum that will effect 10 middle schools and 10 high schools and allow for students in these schools to take a class that affirms the importance of the problem solving and computational thinking skills that are at the core of a programming and making curriculum.

The curriculum will cover Programming, Robotics, Web Development, Embedded Electronics, e-Textiles, and Mobile Computing. This is not a class that meets once a week, the schools who applied and were accepted to this program must offer this class to any student who wishes to take it, and meet at least 4 to 5 periods a week. This is the real deal.

I am excited for the possibilities that this kind of program can open up for students. In my own classes I have witnessed the excitement and empowerment when students start moving the turtle around the screen by entering the "language of turtles" into the keyboard. I am excited that I am a part of this program and I have an opportunity to bring this excitement and empowerment to other children in New York City. 

For more information about this program here is the official press release made in February by the NYCDOE and Mayor Bloomberg. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Making A Case For A Makerspace

There was a recent discussion amongst educators on Twitter about measuring creativity. How do we measure creativity was the question although I was more interested in why would we even want to measure creativity. In this age of data and measurement, must everything be measured? If you listen to the current trends in education and teaching you must know that anything that cannot be measured is not worthy of focus. Either creativity is something worth "teaching" and therefore measuring or it is not and we can dismiss it as something that does not have an important place in schools and education.

Reflecting upon some of the conversations and readings for the Learning Creative Learning seminar I am more than ever convinced that we either need to keep creativity out of the current institution of school or we need to turn school upside down and inside out so that creativity and learning could be a part of school. But to force fit does a disservice to all.

So where does a MakerSpace fit into this paradigm then? Should it exist on the margins, in the classroom, after school at a separate location? Does putting the MakerSpace outside of the school curriculum reduce its legitimacy? Do we want our Makerspace's to be co-opted then consumed by "school"?

Leah Buechley commented on how "schools currently focus on subjects and efficiency". Schedules, curriculum and pacing drive our student's days in most public schools. Dale Dougherty said that educators have asked him what the standardized test is for "making". Which misses the point entirely since it is the making itself that provides evidence of learning.

Making IS learning, you don't have to teach a lesson after the fact, the teaching is taking place while students are engaged in the work. Making is also creative, but must we measure that? Making is problem solving and abstract thinking and computational thinking and STEM and STEAM. We have to be careful not to let Making be reduced to a Buzzword and the educator flavor of the day.

Thoughts and reflections and notes from Session 3 of the Learning Creative Learning Seminar MIT.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


This school year I am having trouble motivating my students. My robotics after school class seemed to begin strong. There was the initial enthusiasm and oohs and aws when I got out the supplies, described possibilities for potential robots, showed some videos of robots that students had made in the past, pointed to all the different ways and places the students could look for inspiration. But by the second month in I had more students just sitting there waiting for me to tell them what to do next then ever before.

In the past I have relied upon the interests and enthusiasms of the students to inspire each other. To gravitate towards other students doing projects that looked interesting, to start up their own project based on an idea shared in the room. This year I seem to be drawing a blank stare when I ask the students about what they are interested in, what ideas they have, what types of things they might like to explore.

I enrolled in the online seminar called "Learning Creative Learning" which is being offered by Mitch Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Yesterday was the first session where Mitch started the open ended discussion that will be at the center of this course, what does it mean to learn creatively, and exactly what are the ways that we can and do learn creativity?

Seymour Papert wrote a piece entitled "The Gears of My Childhood" from his book "Mindstorms", where he addresses the notion of personal interest as it applies to motivation and learning.

I need to figure out how I can, as an educator, work with my students so they may discover or uncover their personal interests. It isn't proving to be as easy as it might seem.