Category Archives: education reform

Podcast: Me and the EduTechGuys at FETC

While at FETC I had a pleasure of sitting down for a short interview with The EduTech Guys. Their motto is, “Come for the tech, stay for the talk.” The EduTechGuys are Jeff Madlock and David Henderson, who host an ongoing podcast plus go to conferences doing live coverage!

It was a ton of fun and I hope to join them for more episodes.

EduTechGuys YouTube Channel

edutech guys

Makerspace on a shoestring? Yes, but…

Me waving my hands at my makerspace startup workshop at FETC earlier this year

One of the questions I get asked quite a lot is about budgets for educational makerspaces.  We are doing this on a shoestring, is that OK? We don’t have any money, is it still worth doing?

My first reaction is typical, I think – of course go for it! No one should be prevented from having a great hands-on learning experience because of lack of funds. There are lots of things that can be repurposed and borrowed. In fact, recycling is a hallmark of the “maker mindset.” Doing more with less is a worthy engineering constraint that develops ingenuity and practical skills.


However, I think there is a “yes… but” that should be understood. When educators are trying to change culture and practices in an organization, it matters that you acknowledge the size of the shift you are trying to accomplish. A bigger shift requires a bigger and more explicit commitment, and having a budget is a visible and commonly understood sign of commitment.

Whether it’s wanting STEM courses to be more inclusive or shifting teaching practices to be to more project-based, it’s about how far you want to go from where you are. You want big changes? Do big things. Of course, it’s not always about money. Your commitment might be towards long-term professional development, but that’s a commitment of time, an even more precious commodity.

But wait, there’s more!  – Want to hear more about making, makerspaces, design, and STEM? Come to FETC in January – I’m leading two workshops and two sessions! Use my “special friends” promo code SPK17 and save $30.00.

School friends. Let me save you $6,000

Google gets into the whiteboard business – Techcrunch

back of the interactive whiteboard
The back is really nice, says Techcrunch

Google is getting into the interactive whiteboard (IWB) business with a product called “Jamboard,” a touchscreen hub built around Google Apps – only $6,000.

It’s only a matter of time before schools get the same sales pitch – you have the free Google suite of tools and apps, you have Chromebooks – this is just a way to extend that investment. OK, so the interactive whiteboards you have now aren’t really being used… well, that’s going to be solved now because these are NEW and BETTER. They are 4K, for goodness sakes! The problem was pixelation!

Techcrunch says, “The board also has 16 levels of pressure sensitive touch and nice little animations that bring small things like erasing to life, as you watch the text flake and fall off the display.”

That’s terrific – what schools need is to bring erasing to life.

We’ve been here before

Six years ago I wrote a post called, “Let me save you $6,162″ about the then “innovative” touch tables that were all the rage at educational technology vendor booths. For only $6,500 you could play virtual tangrams with canned applause when you got the “correct” answer. Now there’s some innovation! Judging by the dearth of touch tables in schools, I guess wiser heads prevailed.

Schools wasted millions of dollars in the last two decades on interactive whiteboards. The reason they were a failure is because they were a bad idea in the first place, not that they didn’t work properly. Gary Stager concisely makes this case in “A Modest Proposal” written in 2011 and still true today. It starts out,

“IWBs and their clicker spawn are a terrible investment that breathes new life into medieval educational practices. … They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and teacher supremacy. At a time of enormous educational upheaval, technological change, and an increasing gulf between adults and children, it is a bad idea to purchase technology that facilitates the delivery of information and increases the physical distance between teacher and learner.”

So, sorry that I can only save you $6,000 (per classroom) this time around, but I’m trying!

Repeat after me…. Innovation isn’t buying new stuff.

Where are we? Is it too late for schools to change?

I had the opportunity to see Bran Ferren speak at an event (Infosys Crossroads) recently. He’s an “American technologist, artist, architectural designer, vehicle designer, engineer, lighting and sound designer, visual effects artist, scientist, lecturer, photographer, entrepreneur, and inventor.” (Wikipedia)

During his fascinating talk, he drew a quick sketch that looked like this:

uh oh curve.001.jpeg.001

And he described how change always happens – by some “new way” sneaking up and overtaking the “old way” of doing it. And by “it” he meant nearly everything – technology, business practices, fashion, customs, politics, art… the list is endless.

Then he added a few lines. The problem, he said, is that we never know where we really are on this curve. Ahead of the change? In the midst? Or it’s long past and perhaps we don’t even realize it.

uh oh curve 2.png.001

It made me think about school. The number of students who believe that school is relevant to their lives is going down exactly as the opportunities for people to learn through informal, global networks are exploding exponentially.

uh oh curve3.png.001

Where are we on this curve? Can we change “school” – meaning formal education systems and organizations before it’s too late? Are we bold enough, are we brave enough to make the big decisions and perhaps painful changes that are necessary?

Questions, questions…

The biggest indictment of our schools is…

from Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant:

“The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. ”

Scott created these charts from the most recent  annual Gallup poll of over 920,000 middle and high school students, and sharing these under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International copyright license. So please share widely! Boring students to death is ridiculous and so unecessary.

Compliance is not perseverance (the grit narrative)

Working hard on something you don’t care about or have a say in is not perseverance or “grit,” it’s compliance.

Thanks to Krissy Venosdale for the cool art! Check out her website for more maker goodies.

I said this last year at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2015. The idea that kids learn to persevere through frustration when they work on things they care about is a central tenet of the classroom maker movement. We talk about “mouth up vs. mouth down” frustration in our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. The former is what Seymour Papert called “hard fun,” while the later is… well… just frustrating. There is no educational purpose to letting a student try to deal with insurmountable problems.

Maria Montessori said, “”Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” She didn’t say that failure is the goal. It’s a big difference that I’ve discussed in other posts.

The conversation has been complicated by the word “grit” becoming the word of the day with the “if we just do x, all will be right with education” crowd. Ira Socol has written brilliantly about how this fascination with grit is grounded in shaky research and barely hidden racism. (Grit and History and Summarizing Grit: The Abundance Narratives)

So it may be just semantics, but words matter, especially if they have been co-opted and become code words for blaming children for not pulling themselves up by their own… opps, they don’t have boots.

Words that work just as well: perseverance, resilience, stubbornness, focus, attention to detail, mindfulness, or craftsmanship. I’m sure there are more.

You can’t teach any of these in isolation. I cringe at the thought of cheerleading kids with “you can do anything” rallies and then marching them back to their worksheets and tests.

The key difference is agency. When the work is yours, it matters more. When you care about what you are making, your perspective changes. Who has ownership? Whose voice is the loudest? By the way, it’s not necessarily true that these attributes are always pleasant or easy to deal with. Stubbornness or a willingness to stand your ground in the face of authority are also indications of resilience. Agency isn’t always polite.

When you see young people as agents of change, rather than objects to be changed, it shifts perspective in a subtle way. Unfortunately, subtle messages tend to get lost in translation.

I’m continually amazed by how hard most students work on things they don’t really have a stake or a say in. Imagine if that work was being done on projects that they cared about and believed in. Every kid wants to be a super-hero, and we have the capacity to empower students to change the world, using their brains, passion, and real world challenges. The promise of the maker movement is not just about the cool tools, but that these tools can supercharge that empowerment.

The “grit” narrative will pass when some other book becomes a best-seller. But the narrative that young people should be active agents in their own learning (in partnership with caring adults) will hopefully outlast them all.

Update (1/29/16): Martin Levins from the The Armidale School in Australia posted a terrific comment on Facebook reminding us that sometimes stopping a project is the best path. Not all projects have a perfect storybook ending, and that’s real life too. Perseverance shouldn’t mean grinding out a project that should have been rethought and reworked.

Back to school headlines – do your homework

Stories in the news like this drive me crazy: Kids have three times too much homework, study finds; what’s the cost?

It starts out:

Nothing quite stresses out students and parents about the beginning of the school year as the return to homework, which for many households means nightly battles centered around completing after-school assignments.

Now a new study may help explain some of that stress.

The study, published Wednesday in The American Journal of Family Therapy, found students in the early elementary school years are getting significantly more homework than is recommended by education leaders, in some cases nearly three times as much homework as is recommended.

I agree with questioning homework. Alfie Kohn makes the case in his book, The Homework Myth better than I ever could. (If you want to read a summary of his thoughts on homework, try this article from Principal magazine.)

So I start reading the CNN article with a personal bias towards agreeing with it, and hoping it makes good points that parents and teachers can really act on. The article says that kids are being assigned too much homework, even in kindergarten, where no homework is the recommendation of experts across the board.

However, I’m soon disappointed. First, they cite the “10 minute rule” from the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association. (10 minutes per grade level per night, starting in first grade.) However, if you click on the link, it takes you to an article on the PTA website, Hints to Help Reduce Homework Stress, which does not provide any information or research support for this rule. Poking around the sites shows a link to studies by Harris Cooper, PhD, such as this article Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: If So, How Much Is Best? with a sidebar summarizing his own analysis of homework research:

“The authors found that all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws. However, both within and across design types, there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement. Studies that reported simple homework-achievement correlations revealed evidence that a stronger correlation existed in grades 7–12 than in grades K–6 and when students, rather than parents, reported time on homework. No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework-achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math). On the basis of these results and others, the authors suggest future research.”

While this is hardly strong evidence (especially in early grades), Alfie Kohn decimates even this, “For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.  For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.  At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.  Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.”

So, to me, there’s controversy about homework being worth ANY time, even the “10 minutes per grade”.

But even if you decide that some homework is a good idea, where does this “10 minute rule” come from? In her book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs, Cathy Vatterot says “origin unknown”. It’s just something that’s been “long endorsed” by the NEA and the PTA. So it’s a rule that’s become a rule because lots of people repeat that it’s a rule. Vatterot also provides a long and interesting discussion about the limits and contradictions found in research on homework.

But back to CNN – to their credit, they forge on to present evidence that homework doesn’t help students, that homework stress is directly related to real medical problems, and that homework discriminates against families where parents are poor, less well educated, or speak limited English.

Then comes the “what can parents do” part of the article. Instead of suggesting that parents use the evidence that homework is useless, they quote experts about “solutions” like finding a quiet spot, and encouraging your child (but with vague warnings about not helping them too much).

If that doesn’t work, parents are encouraged to communicate with their child’s teacher to “problem solve” together. Is the problem solving about getting rid of homework? No, it’s about how to get the child to do the work, perhaps in less time or with fewer tears, but to still do the work.

So how about helping parents fix the actual problem – the homework. Why not suggest that parents take on the “10 minute rule” because it’s bogus. Why not suggest that teachers push back on homework policies in their districts – isn’t this the age of differentiated instruction? Don’t we care about research? This is especially true in schools where the 10-minute rule has morphed from “no more than 10 minutes” to “10 minutes every night”.

This is what bugs me. Articles for parents are always about fixing the child, or the environment, or their own attitudes. Even when studies show that the problem is the educational practice, parents are being told the problem is them and their children.


Let’s stop lying to girls about STEM careers

We all want girls (and all young people) to have equal opportunity and to be whatever they want to be. But the reality is grim. Women are discriminated against in the workforce. They are paid less than men, promoted less, and listened to less. It’s not “perception” – it’s the hard truth. (See the research here.)  And it’s worse in many STEM careers, especially in engineering and programming. In college, women are discriminated against in courses, grading, and in getting mentorships that are so important for advanced degrees.

Trace back down this pipeline to K-12 and the facts don’t get any happier. Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math even when they get (generally) better grades and test scores than boys, and not selected as often for STEM slots in academies and special programs.

But girls have an advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science get good grades in other subjects too, whereas boys tend to get good grades in one area. Girls who score well on tests in math and science tend to also score well in language, history, and other subjects.

So when we complain there is a “leaky pipeline” in K-12 education for girls in STEM courses, it’s not just discrimination. Girls are choosing to not major in STEM subjects for the very reasonable reason that they have more options.

Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking. And really, let’s call it like it is, it’s lying.

Lying to kids is bad. Lying makes kids distrust adults and strangles the most important educational tool of all, a relationship of trust between educators and young people. Even when the lie hides harsh reality, even when we wish it weren’t true, it’s better to speak the truth — and then work to fix it.

Now – am I saying that we should tell girls to just give up? No. I’m saying we have to tell girls AND BOYS the truth. That there is unfairness and discrimination in the world. We should tell them because they deserve the truth. We should tell them because they should (and will) be appalled. We should tell them because it gives them a chance to think about how it should be different. And then we should teach them how to make the world a fairer place, starting today.

Because guess who can fix it – they can. Girls AND boys are the only hope that this changes, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.

It’s not like they don’t know it already. In a Girls Scouts study, (Generation STEM), “… 57% of all girls say that if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from Generation STEM, “Half (50%) of African American girls (compared to 38% of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: “Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/ worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.”’)


These problems can’t be solved by sweeping them under the rug; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work TOGETHER to solve them.

What educators can do:

  • Arm yourself with the facts. I pulled together some resources for my ISTE session, Girls & STEM: Making It Happen
  • Talk with young people about stereotype threat, what it means, and how to overcome it.
  • Don’t just talk to girls about these issues – boys need to understand them too. The solutions must come from everywhere.
  • Boys and men are not “to blame” for how society treats women. It’s a long-standing issue, but one that can be changed by everyone working together.
  • Tell inspiring stories of women and girls – but also of men and boys who overcome obstacles and odds stacked against them.
  • This is not a “woman issue”. Use resources like: Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts from the National Council on Women in Technology (NCWIT) and adapt for your own setting.
  • Address issues of discrimination in your own settings quickly and fairly. What you do (as the adult in the room) matters. But not just in the classroom, also in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge, conference stage, and offices.
  • Be mindful of your own behavior and try as much as possible to open the learning invitations to all students.
  • Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think, how do they feel about it, what do they want to change?


Making in the classroom is a political stance

When I talk about the maker movement in schools I do talk about tools and spaces, but I try to make the point that it’s about giving agency to kids in a system that most often considers students to be objects of change, rather than agents of change.

One of our reasons for writing the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom  was to try to create momentum for the return of progressive principles of education, principles that have been yanked away from kids and teachers by politicians, corporations, and Silicon Valley gurus who think they know how to fix everything with an app.

I think this is a historic time, a second Industrial Revolution, where everything is coming together right at the right time. And like the Industrial Revolution, it will not be just a change in technology, but will resonate in politics, culture, economics, and how people live and work worldwide.

Politics, power, and empowerment
People may not think of the Maker Movement or making in the classroom as a political stance, but they both are.

Politics isn’t only about who gets elected, or the day to day “action” on Capitol Hill, it’s a negotiation of power in any relationship – who has it, who can use it, and over how many other people. The Maker Movement is about sharing ideas and access to solutions with the world, not for money or power, but to make the world a better place. It’s about trusting other people, often people you don’t know, to use these ideas for good.

Making in the classroom is also about power and trust, and perhaps in an even more important way, because it’s about transferring power to a new generation. Young people who are the ones who will take over the world in the not too distant future. And if the learner has agency and responsibility over their own learning, they gain trust, not just the trust of the adults in the room, but trust in themselves as powerful problem-solvers and agents of change.

It is a political statement to work to empower people, just as it is a political statement to work to disempower people. That holds true for all people, not just young people. Being a helpless pawn in a game controlled by others is disempowering, whether you are a teacher, student, parent, or citizen of the world. Deciding that you trust another person enough to share power, or even more radical, give them agency over important decisions, is indeed political.

Making is not only a stance towards taking that power back, as individuals and as a community, but also trusting ourselves and each other to share that power to create, learn, grow, and solve problems. Empowering students is an act of showing trust by transferring power and agency to the learner. Helping young people learn how to handle the responsibility that goes along with this power is the sensible way to do it. Creating opportunities to develop student voice and inspiring them with modern tools and modern knowledge needed to solve real problems is part of this job.

And by the way, you can’t have empowered students without empowered teachers. Script-reading robot teachers will not empower students. We have to fight against the devaluation of teachers, and the devaluation of kids as cogs in some corporate education machine. We can do this, we can change minds, even if it’s hard, even if it seems impossible. We just have to do it anyway. That’s politics.

Education will change, how it changes is up to us
For education to change, it can’t just be tweaks to policy, or speeches, or buying the new new thing — teachers have to know how to empower learners every day in every classroom and be able to make it happen. Leadership is creating the conditions for this to happen.

Let me say it again – There is no chance of having empowered students without empowered teachers — competent, professional, caring teachers who have agency over their classroom and curriculum – who are supported by their leaders and community in that work.

So the question is – can the maker movement really have this kind of impact on schools? Or will this fade into a long line of fads and new-new things that promise educational revolution without actually requiring any change at all.

I see this as a singular time in history. There is an opportunity to leverage momentum swinging away from the testing idiocracy, away from techno-centric answers — to making education better with thoughtful, human answers.

Am I really saying that technology is the way to make education more human? Yes – but only if the technology is used to give agency to the learner, not the system.

I see a convergence of science and technology, along with the power of networks to connect people who are solving problems both global and local. I see people who are fed up with consumerism, opting out of corporate testing schemes – people who no longer have to wait for answers or hand outs from the government, from a big company, or from a university. They can figure it out, make it, and share it with the world.

Why is it different this time?
But haven’t there been a thousand “revolutions” that failed to change education? Why do I think this time is different? Why is this movement going to not be another failed attempt to “fix” education? Because my hero, Seymour Papert, the father of everything that’s good in educational technology, said so.

In his 1998 paper Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete, Papert said that the profound ideas of John Dewey didn’t fail, but were simply ahead of their time. Experiential learning is not just another school reform destined to failure because three reversals are taking place right now.

The first reversal is that children can be part of the change. Papert called it “kid power”.

Schools used to demand that students meet standards. But the time is coming when students will demand that schools live up to the standards of learning they have come to expect via their personal computers, even their phones. As Mimi Ito has written about so persuasively, more and more young people learn independently and follow their own passions via online sites and communities, and most of them are NOT run by traditional educational institutions.

The second reversal Papert identifies is that the computer offers “learner technology” instead of “teacher technology.” Many attempts at inserting technology into classrooms simply reinforce the role of teacher (video lectures, Khan Academy), replace the teacher (drill and practice apps, computerized testing), or provide management tools for the teacher (LMS, CMS).

But now we have affordable computers, sensors, and simple programming tools that are LEARNER materials. This transition, if we choose to make the transition, Papert says “…offers a fundamental reversal in relationships between participants in learning.”

The third reversal is that powerful ideas previously only available in abstraction, or in high level courses can now be made understandable for young children. Much like learning a foreign language in early years is easier, we can help students live and breathe complex topics with hands-on experiences.

I believe that this is overlooked in much talk about making in education. While I love the awesome “get it done” Macgyver attitude of the maker movement and the incorporation of artistic sensibilities like mindfulness – I think these are secondary effects. The maker movement is laying 21st century content out on a silver platter – things that we want kids to know, things kids are interested in, but are hard to teach with paper and pencil. Content and ideas that are the cornerstone of learning in the 21st century – from electronics and computer programming to mathematical and scientific concepts like feedback, 3D design, precision, and randomness – can be learned and understood by very young children as they work with computational technology.

But this third reversal may be the most difficult – these ideas were not taught to parents and teachers when they were children. Convincing parents and teachers that today’s children need to understand these new, fundamentally different concepts may be the hardest work of all.

No doubt, there is hard work to be done
The strategy for overcoming the last obstacle brings us back to politics and back to empowerment.

It means that for those of us who want to change education, the hard work is in our own minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought existed. Challenging conventions and cultural institutions that are ingrained in us in childhood. Sharing power with others, including students who might not do exactly what we expect them to do. Being willing to change everything, even when we feel we can change nothing.

The deepest problem for us is not technology, or teaching, or school bureaucracies – it’s the limits of our own thinking.

Politics is action, but everyone doesn’t have to be doing the same thing
What can we do when each one of us is in our own unique situation, each of us has a different position on the levers of power, and each of us sees with our own lens? Actually, I believe that this diversity offers strength, because no one person can do everything. Everyone has a part to play to take back the power of learning and create classrooms and other learning spaces where teachers and students are empowered and acknowledged as the center of the learning process.

And that, I believe, is ultimately a political act that will make the world a better place.