Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thinking About CMK14 [Part 1]

My 5th year at CMK (Constructing Modern Knowledge) and the best yet. (Of course I say this every year.) When I look at the range of ideas, and participants, and projects, my head spins. The access to so many materials seems to raise the bar exponentially each year. The complexity and the inter-connective-ness of ideas and tools and computing power makes for projects that you never thought possible**, especially given the fact that in most cases projects were conceived and brainstormed on Tuesday and pretty much completed and demo-ed on Friday!

Looking around the rooms this year, mid-week, I thought of what Papert says about the power of ideas, but also what he says about the power of tools and technologies. 

"Leonardo da Vinci tried to invent an airplane. If you look at his drawings, you see that he had some really good ideas—not that they would have worked. But I think that by looking at his drawings, you can see that if he had been able to experiment with those ideas, he would have seen the ways in which they didn't work and very likely would have made a successful airplane or participated in the making of the airplane in his time. However, he could not even begin that process because in order to do it, you needed a lot of technological infrastructure. You needed machine tools. You needed fuels. You needed some source of power. You needed materials. You needed a knowledge of physics."
-Seymour Papert "Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century 1998

Papert often mentions the sense of empowerment that intellectual tools can give you. This is exactly what I have observed in my years at CMK. There is a growth in the scope of the projects precisely because there has been such a growth in materials, electronics, and components given the rise in the maker movement these past years. The creative and amazing ideas have always been in existence at CMK, as has access to many creative tools and technologies. What I love about the projects that are created at CMK every year is how they combine and use so many parts and pieces of old and new. The projects are truly a bricolage of materials (and ideas), where Lego RCX motors make connections to Arduino boards, or to Makey-Makey's. Where a Little Bit remote sensor block triggers a Rube Goldberg machine that also includes a Bubble Machine and toilet paper. Where the 3D printer allows for immediate production of needed and newly designed parts, where cardboard and aluminum foil and felt are just as important to the integrity of the system as the batteries and the sensors.

"My goal in life, which has been my major activity over the last 10 years, has been to find ways children can use this technology as a constructive medium to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a level of complexity that was not previously accessible to children."
Seymour Papert "Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century 1998

I am always reminded of Papert's goal when I attend CMK, and am surrounded by the amazing educators taking risks and immersing themselves in "hard fun". Why can't I be reminded of this when I look around at what happens in so many classrooms these days? Why are so many children still being given only poster board and markers, and nothing else, and then told to make sense of the words in a text book or a worksheet?

I truly hope that schools and classrooms everywhere will mirror the growing success of CMK and the expansion of the (small m) maker movement, and I hope it remains true to the spirit of learning and as Papert envisioned.

"The deep contribution of the computer to education comes from its being a constructional material as well as an informational medium. Children can use it to make far more complex and intellectually rich constructions. It allows a shift in balance from learning mostly by being told to learning far more by making and doing." - Papert

**CMK14 Vimeo - Project videos

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Time For A Change

For the past 7 years I have taught a "computer" class to middle school students twice a week. In that time the class has evolved from the basic class I inherited (aka typing for 15 minutes, work on making a digital poster of your science or ELA project using PrintShop and KidPix) to a curriculum that includes animation, computer programming, digital image making, physical computing and more. With this more intensive curriculum comes new problems and setbacks. I still teach the students for 50 minute blocks twice a week. Between testing and trips and vacation days this doesn't leave a lot of time to really develop deep understandings for many of my students. Because the class isn't a class "that counts", many students (and their parents), don't think it is an important class and tend to complain about having to do work and thinking that free time on the computers is what the students deserve more of.

Despite repeating the mantra "would you rather program the computer rather than be programmed by the computer", too many students consider themselves to be experts with little left to learn, and parents agree, telling me how their kids are using the computer all the time, watching YouTube and chatting with their friends. It has been an uphill battle that keeps getting steeper each school year.

This past year I have been immersed in reading and thinking and learning about all the different ways that the Making phenomena can be incorporated into the school curriculum. At times I have thought that school doesn't deserve the Maker experience, that the formal and conservative framework of what passes for most schools would only do to making as it has done to other innovations and ideas, absorb it into its rigid structure and change the innovation to fit school instead of changing school to fit the innovation. (see "Why School Reform is Impossible" by Seymour Papert, 1995 - "The Reform sets out to change School, but in the end School changes the Reform. School resists the Reform in a particular way, by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structure.").

Student soldering 3d printed LED flashlight
Well, I am going to give it a try anyway. With the blessing of my school and the science department, we are rebranding the "computer lab" as a STEAM Lab or iLab (official name to be determined), rearranging the room as best we can with our limited resources and electrical circuits, and attaching the two periods I teach each week to the science classes as a hands on science lab experience for the students. Typical NYC public middle schools don't have the time, space, or resources, to facilitate a true project-based lab experience for their students within the confines of 4 or 5 periods a week and 30 plus students a class. It is my hope that what I already do in my computer classes, and what happens in my lunchtime Makerspace, can be the foundation for hands-on inquiry based projects that connect to the existing science curriculum for the 6th and 7th graders. The approach will be framed in design thinking and using a design/engineering cycle that will allow students to work through problems and have the time to discover solutions through this iterative process.

I am excited for the possibilities, I am excited to be collaborating and working with other teachers at my school, for a subject "that counts", I am excited to be doing something new and figuring out what works and what doesn't. Sure there will be problems, but at least these will be new problems. I am looking forward to learning from those of you who are already doing this kind of work and incorporating ideas and best practices and project ideas into our new STEAM Lab.

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.