Invent to Learn a “Must Read” for Modern Educational Change Leaders

coverModern Learners just released a free whitepaper, 8 Must Read Books for Modern Educational Change Leaders. We are honored to have Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom appear alongside the other featured books from Seymour Papert, David Perkins, Seymour Sarason, and many more.

“Sylvia and Gary’s book became an instant classic that in a short time has influenced classroom practice around the world. While on the surface, Invent to Learn seems to be a book about the nascent Maker Movement that has gained great popularity in recent years, this is more a book about how to create opportunities for deep and powerful learning for kids that is amplified by technology. Building on the work and ideas of Seymour Papert, this is one of the few books that situates real learning in a fully modern context.”

Modern Learners, a global online community headed by Bruce Dixon and Will Richardson, features podcasts, courses, and a platform for educators to join in conversations about changing the practice of school.

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Is “making” in education a fad or a lasting change?

In part 1 of this two part series, I shared four attributes of ideas about education that successfully become common knowledge. In this post, part 2, the topic is whether making and makerspaces in education are here to stay or whether they will fade in popularity.

According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four attributes that are key to educational ideas moving into the mainstream:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

Read more about these attributes in Part 1 – 4 keys that predict which education ideas will be more than just a fad. The examples used to illustrate these points are:

The current interest in schools in making and makerspaces has many parallels to these examples. Looking at each one of these attributes under a “maker” microscope is an interesting exercise!

Perceived significance

People have to hear about it and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

  • The maker movement came at an opportune time for the resurgence of the idea that children learn through hands-on, minds-on experiences. Having popular media create a widespread acceptance that DIY and crafts are modern and futuristic helps with the adoption of this idea.
  • Having multiple, prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard doing research that supports making in education is important. The intellectual pedigree may be seen as elitist, but there is no doubt that it works as shorthand for establishing credibility.
  • It jigsaws with two contemporary concerns without really taking a side:
    1. The current interest in STEM/STEAM education driven by a perceived lack of preparation of today’s youth for jobs in important industries.
    2. The concern that young people do not see school as relevant to their real passions, including wanting to make the world a better place as opposed to making money.

Philosophical compatibility

Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

  • Making is an obvious backlash to the standards and accountability movements of the last 30 years. It gives teachers a concrete way to put their beliefs–-or at least an answer to their nagging doubts–-into practice.
  • The maker movement can be seen through a number of lenses: personal accountability, a new economic engine, techno-centrism, globalism, practical skills, community involvement, ecology, etc. These attributes transfer to making in education, creating a chameleon that takes whatever shape educators and the community desire.
  • Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, the vagueness of “maker education” might be an asset in more widespread adoption.

Occupational realism

The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

  • This is an ongoing issue for making in education. If it requires a wholesale shakeup in the way a school is run, the subjects that are taught, and the way teachers teach, that is a big lift. It may, like the project method, become an add-on practice.

Seymour Papert often compared the way school reacts to big ideas like the computer as an immune system response. School identifies a foreign idea, overwhelms it, and neutralizes it.

“Previously teachers with a few computers in the classroom were using them to move away from the separation of subject matters, and the breakup of the day. When the administration takes over they make a special room, and they put the computers in that room and they have a computer period with a computer teacher. Instead of becoming something that undermines all these antiquated teachings of school, computers became assimilated. It is inherent in school, not because teachers are bad or schools are bad, but in all organisms that have come to a stable equilibrium state in the world, that they have a tendency to preserve the inertia they have. So school turned what could be a revolutionary instrument into essentially a conservative one. School does not want to radically change itself. The power of computers is not to improve school but to replace it with a different kind of structure.” http://www.papert.org/articles/SchoolsOut.html

Re-read the paragraph above replacing “makerspace” for “computer lab” and “3D printer” (or your favorite maker technology) for “computer.” Has anything changed?

It was certainly a good thing that children got access to computers. But in many schools, students only learned to use computers to take notes, write reports, and look things up–-hardly new ways to learn. Computer labs and computer classes instead resulted in schools being satisfied that they were using modern technology without having to actually change the content or pedagogy of any “regular” class. The computer lab became a misdirection, an excuse for the status quo, rather than a driver of change.

How will it feel, if two years or twenty years from now we look back and say exactly the same thing about makerspaces? That we built them, we tried to integrate making into the curriculum, we thought it would change everything–but nothing happened.

When schools insist that making fit into existing curriculum and subjects, it’s reasonable to agree and to try to create materials that help teachers do that. The risk is twofold: 1. If this doesn’t happen and making is not in the curriculum, it will always be on the outside, not a core need or intent of school and not impacting most students. 2. If we do make it work in the curriculum, it will simply be muted, and gradually absorbed as the school creates a new stable equilibrium without really making any change to the lived experiences of the students.

Either of these choices ends up with nothing really changing.

The other option, as Papert points out, is to replace school with a “different kind of structure.” Is that giving up… or facing reality?

Can educators have their feet pointed in two directions at once–both working to drastically change the system and at the same time, assisting students in the current system to have a better experience? Is “occupational realism” a death sentence for ideas that are truly revolutionary?

Transportability

The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

  • The good thing about “making” is that it’s an easy word to understand. Students need to do things, and educators can visualize that happening at every grade level, and perhaps with a little help, in every subject area.
  • It embodies the commonly understood ideals of the project method, plus embraces more modern versions like PBL. To that it adds a bundle of futuristic and cool tools to work with.

A note about independent schools

Private independent schools have been early and enthusiastic adopters of making in education. While it is easy to point to these schools having the financial resources to purchase expensive technology, there are deeper reasons that making resonates with independent schools. This was also true of the theory of Multiple Intelligences. In his book, Schneider makes the case that independent schools, primarily elite, non-parochial schools were primary drivers for the popularity of MI.

  • Independent schools are typically more progressive than public schools. MI provided new support for these ideals and scientific language to communicate these progressive ideals to parents and staff.
  • Independent schools are typically freer than public schools to try new approaches and curriculum than public schools. Using MI to recalibrate activities in the classrooms was seen as part of the school mission, not as disruptive.
  • At a time where schools were being called failures and under duress to teach in a more rigorous, standardized way, MI gave independent schools a way to push back on this trend and claim that their progressive methods were scientifically based.
  • As a market-driven organization, independent schools constantly need new things to prove to parents that they are worth the money. MI was an understandable concept, and validated by the  Harvard pedigree, an easy sell to parents.
  • Independent schools have traditionally valued the arts, MI provided a way to say that the arts were not detracting from academics.
  • Independent schools catered to parental expectations that their child would be treated as an individual. MI provided clarity that personalization could be  scientifically based, not just left to chance.

There are certainly noteworthy parallels between MI and the adoption of making and makerspaces in independent schools. It is good to note that in many cases, the adoption of MI in independent schools created examples of practice that made their way into public schools. MI supporters were found in many communities, working to make all schools happier and more humane.

Is “Making” going to stick?

Will making in education have a lasting effect on education, or will it become just another “new new thing” that is overtaken by some newer new thing? It certainly has the perceived significance. Both academic credentials and cultural trends are working in its favor. It has philosophical compatibility with many teachers and parents too. They see children starving in a desert of worksheets and tests and know there must be a better way.

There may be more to worry about in other areas. In some cases it has transportability, especially when using simplified models like Design Thinking. The problem is that simplified models and canned lesson plans are a double-edged sword. As they helps teachers with operational realities, it removes agency from the teacher. Is it inevitable that creating a version of making in education that is widely acceptable will by its nature create unacceptable compromises?

It may be that countries other than the United States hold the answer. American teachers have the least amount of professional preparation time in the world. They participate in less professional development, have less time to plan lessons, and spend less time with colleagues. The US is a large country with a fractured educational governance and dissemination path for educational information. US teachers are underpaid, overworked, and given all these realities, may simply not be in a position to undertake changes.

While educational theorists often talk about wanting to scale good practice, there may be such a thing as “too big to scale,” especially when it comes to complex ideas.

For proponents of making in education, the longevity and widespread adoption of ideas like Multiple Intelligences offers hope that making will become a long-term trend in schools.

Part 1 – 4 Keys to Predicting Lasting Trends in Education

Part 2 – Is Making a Long-term Trend or Just a Fad?

4 keys that predict which education idea will be more than just a fad

Why do some ideas about education become common knowledge, while others don’t? According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four key attributes:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

The book explores educational ideas that made the leap from academia to being something that “every” teacher knows about:

Tracking the history of these ideas as they journeyed from research to practice is a fascinating look not just at education, but also politics, culture, personalities, and pure luck. Contrasting each these ideas with four similar ones that did not receive the same attention makes the case even more compelling.

The 4 characteristics of sticky educational ideas

In part 1 of this blog post, I’ll summarize the four characteristics that are commonly found in ideas that become “sticky” and well known to educators. In part 2, I’ll compare those ideas and practices with the current trend of making and makerspaces in schools. Will “making” be a sticky idea?

1 – Perceived significance: People have to hear about the idea multiple times and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

For example, Multiple Intelligence theory helped teachers explain that students who don’t do well in school aren’t simply unintelligent. At a time when school was becoming more standardized (1980s), it was a big picture explanation of how teachers could still meet student needs without really changing curriculum. Coming from Howard Gardner, a respected Harvard professor, meant that it would be listened to, talked about, and taken seriously.

2 – Philosophical compatibility: Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

At the turn of the 20th century, rote learning and recitation were the primary modes of schooling. Many teachers felt that there was more to learning, but were powerless to change the system. William Kilpatrick, on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote about what he called “the project method.” It validated teachers’ feelings that something was wrong. It offered an explanation that made sense, and a way to operationalize that in a classroom.

3 – Occupational realism: The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

Both Bloom’s taxonomy and MI had occupational realism in that teachers didn’t have to change very much to feel like they were using these scientific methods in their classroom.

In the book’s discussion of “the project method,” the practical application in the classroom was its weakest point. It wasn’t clear how to do it, and even if it was possible, seemed to call for a complete overhaul of school structures and curriculum. Therefore it was mostly adopted as something that happened every once in a while as an add-on to the curriculum. As time went on, widespread adoption of formulaic projects subverted the power and promise of the idea. The book discusses the spread of the “California Mission Project” as an example. (For those of you not in California, every fourth grader in California builds a model of a Spanish mission, and has for decades.) The poor implementation of the project method on its way to occupational realism was the price paid for its widespread acceptance and endurance.

The review of why Direct Instruction became so widespread is especially interesting. It violates the second principle of “philosophical compatibility” because many teachers do not believe in scripted curriculum. However, at the time (late 1960s), political pressure for accountability and cost reductions required a curriculum that did not need a highly trained professional, yet produced increased standardized test scores. Despite complaints that students were being treated like trained animals, politics and budget cuts overwhelmed that objection.

DI solved multiple problems. It made it easier to spend less on teacher training and teacher salaries, increased test scores, allowed larger class sizes, and satisfied the “back to basics” movement all at the same time. The occupational realism of Direct Instruction was above all, institutional and political, rather than classroom centered.

4 – Transportability: The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

Bloom’s Taxonomy started off as an assessment scheme, a way to be more objective by defining different kinds of questions for students to answer. It quickly leaked out of assessment, as educators applied the structure to every part of the educational process from planning onwards, taking Bloom’s into a whole new area for which it had not been intended.

As time went on, the original complex definitions were simplified and recast as a pyramid that implied a progression from bottom to top. Teachers started seeing the drawing of the pyramid everywhere in their professional lives, and every instance reinforced the idea that it was reliable. This cycle of positive reinforcement-–of exposure validating reliability, and so in turn creating more exposure–-is typical of ideas that gain traction.

Original Bloom’s Taxonomy

Fifty years before Bloom, MI, and DI, “the project method” found its way to millions of teachers. It had a persuasive and tireless advocate in William Kilpatrick, from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He was an ambitious academic who wanted more than just scholarly fame. He convinced the publication Teachers College Record to publish his article, “The Project Method” and give it away for free to teachers. Sixty thousand copies were printed and distributed nationwide. Thousands of subsequent papers and articles were written about the project method and its application to all grade levels and subjects.

Although not a new idea, Kilpatrick wrote in a clear and less formal manner than many academics, including his teacher and mentor John Dewey. Kilpatrick was also genuinely interested in real classrooms. While some of his colleagues complained that he was a self-promoter tarnishing the reputation of academia, the results spoke for themselves.

The project method made such an inroad into teacher education in the first half of the 20th century that it became a part of every teacher’s classroom practice up to this day. The resurgence of various project methods in the 1960’s and 70’s (PBL, The Project Approach, etc) simply built on the collective consciousness of this idea from a half century earlier.

The project method became so popular that “project” became a term of art, not a specific method tied to one person. One can only assume that Professor Kilpatrick would be a bit miffed by this.

Ideas make their way into the world

The book creates a case that one of the reasons that most of these ideas took hold was that they were both specific and general at the same time. They also had a wide variety of interpreters and promoters who helped spread the message.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gave teachers a new way to look at classroom practice, yet didn’t require any particular belief or theory of pedagogy to implement. If you were progressive, it matched your understanding that growth is at least as important as learning specific facts. If you were more of a traditionalist, it provided a path from content to deeper understanding. The lack of opposition was an opportunity for it to spread widely. Everyone saw what they wanted reflected in an idea from a highly respected source. Schneider says the taxonomy was, “… an idea that somehow had the power to generate multiple constituencies without sparking opposition.”

Various providers of professional development created materials that further examined Bloom’s Taxonomy and provided specific curriculum and lesson planning advice. For the time, Bloom was remarkably open about supporting various groups, authors, and companies to interpret his work. These satellite disseminators made it easier to access the work, and even though some complained that it was misinterpreted or diluted, it was widely spread. These providers helped the idea gain the operational realism that it lacked in earliest incarnations. They answered the question — What would a teacher DO exactly, in a classroom where Bloom’s Taxonomy was a driving idea?

What does this mean for today’s ideas about making in education?

In part 2 of this post, I’ll take a look at how “making” in education aligns with these four traits.

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Makerspace on a shoestring? Yes, but…

sylvia-FETC-makerspace-session
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.

Yes…but…

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! 

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.

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.