Two weeks – ICE, then Spain and Italy

I’m heading out for a string of presentations and workshops – hope to see old friends and new!

ICE 2018 – Feb 26 (Chicago) I’m part of an “All-Star” lineup of presenters who are participating in the Illinois Computing Educators conference. Instead of one keynote they are bringing back keynotes from previous years to do panels and featured presentations. It’s a bit embarrassing to call yourself an “All-Star” but that’s their term, not mine! Check out the whole list and join us!

Then I’m flying straight to Italy where Gary Stager and I will keynote a School Innovation conference in Modena and lead a workshop in Bologna on March 2 & 3. Then we hit the road (by train) for lectures at Universities in Padua, Vicenza, Venice, and Pistoia. Finally a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy in Rome with an innovation policy advocacy working group.

Oh, and in between I’m flying to Valencia, Spain to keynote a conference there! INTED 2018 will be March 5-7 and I’ll be keynoting on March 5.


Before you “do a makerspace” – four considerations

When we talk about making, there is a tendency to overlap our terms, like saying we’re going to “do makerspace”. I think unpacking these terms help uncover underlying assumptions, especially when designing new spaces and learning opportunities. I see this as four distinct aspects that work together:

  1. Place – Makerspace, hackerspace, Fab Lab, Techshop, shop, science lab, open classroom, studio
  2. Culture – Maker movement, hacker culture, craft, green, economic self-determinism, service-learning, artisanal, amateur science, citizen science, urban agriculture, slow food
  3. Process – Making, tinkering, Design Thinking, design, Genius Hour, PBL
  4. Underlying belief about teaching & learning – Instructionism, behaviorism, constructivism, constructionism

By looking at these four aspects, we can untangle some of the confusion about what “making” in education is. These can combine in interesting ways – you can have a Design Thinking program that is strongly teacher directed in a makerspace that has a green eco-streak that permeates the projects. The place doesn’t dictate the process, which is good and bad.

Many times, when designing new learning opportunities or spaces it is assumed that their current culture will transform as well. Space planning doesn’t magically transform pedagogy. You can’t assume that just because you build a flexible space with terrific materials, it will magically be filled with wonderful student-centered, open-ended projects.

Here’s a “cheat sheet” for the four aspects.


Both formal (credit-bearing courses, primarily at schools) and informal (extra-curricular activities, clubs, libraries, museums, community organizations, commercial spaces)

  • Hackerspace – “Hacking” indicates both an activity and political belief that systems should be open to all people to change and redistribute for the greater good. (roots in the 1960’s). More prevalent in Europe than US.
  • Makerspace – MAKE magazine (2005 – present). Popular Science for the 21st century. DIY and DIWO. Maker Faires. Adopted as a softer, safer alternative to hackerspace. Can be a separate room or integrated into classrooms.
  • Fab Lab – Spaces connected to the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms (565 worldwide) with a common charter and specific requirements for space and tools. Fablab also used as a generic nickname for any fabrication lab.
  • TechShop (and others) – non-profit or commercial organizations offering community tool sharing, classes, or incubation space.
  • Shop, science lab, classroom, studio – traditional names for school spaces for learning via hands-on activities.


  • Maker movement – technology-based extension of DIY culture, incorporating hobbyist tools to shortcut a traditional (corporate) design and development process, and the internet to openly share problems and solutions. Maker mindset – a positive, energized attitude of active tinkering to solve problems, using any and all materials at hand.
  • Hacker/hacking – Essential lessons about the world are learned “..from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things.” – Steven Levy
  • Green – values of ecology, conservation, and respect for the environment.
  • Citizen/amateur science – participation of non-professional scientists in gathering and interpreting data or collaborating in research projects.
  • Artisanal/craft movements – engaging in mindful and ethical practices to humanize activities, products, and production.


  • Making – the act of creation. “Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.” – Sylvia Martinez
  • Tinkering – non-linear, iterative approach to reaching a goal. “messing about” with materials, tools, and ideas. “Making, fixing, and improving mental constructions.” – Seymour Papert
  • Design Thinking – customer-centered product design and development process popularized by IDEO and the Stanford
  • Design – “to give form, or expression, to inner feelings and ideas, thus projecting them outwards, making them tangible.” – Edith Ackermann
  • Genius Hour – specific classroom time devoted to tinkering and open-ended projects. Patterned after companies (Google and FedEx, primarily) that allow employees to work on non-company projects on company time, thereby boosting morale and possibly resulting in products useful to the company.
  • Project-based Learning (PBL) – Projects are…“work that is substantial, shareable, and personally meaningful.” – Martinez & Stager

Beliefs about teaching and learning

  • Instructionism – Belief that learning is the result of teaching. Lecture, direct instruction.
  • Behaviorism – Belief that behavior is a result of reinforcement and punishment. Rote learning, worksheets, stars/stickers, grades.
  • Constructivism – Piagetian idea that learning is a personal, internal reconstruction—not a transmission of knowledge. Socratic method, modeling, manipulatives, experiments, research, groupwork, inquiry.
  • Constructionism – Seymour Papert extended constructivism with the idea that learning is even more effective when the learner is creating a meaningful, shareable artifact. PBL, making, citizen science.

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.

What if… those helpful instructions aren’t so helpful

My last post linked to a video showing Dr. Paulo Blikstein of Stanford University showcasing the research going on in his department regarding how making becomes learning.

The next question is what to do when faced with early research? Do we just wait until the research is done? Or maybe even validated with other studies?

I don’t believe this.

I want to know, “What if these early findings are true? Would it change my practice? What would it look like in my classroom or school?”

Let’s just take one of the research questions being asked – Do detailed instructions help or hinder student understanding? What is the difference between a learner who is given step-by-step instructions vs. being given time to explore a new technology? It is often assumed that the way to learn something new is to follow explicit directions for a couple of tries, and then eventually do it on your own.

The early research is showing, however, that students who are given explicit instructions do NOT move to not needing those instructions. They stay “stuck” in a habit of depending on  instructions.

Uh oh. As someone who works with teachers learning new technology, what should I do? Should I hide my handouts? Make them less explicit? I don’t know, but I’m sure thinking about it.

Maybe you are thinking about this with your students. Why not do a little experiment? If you give students detailed instructions “just to get them started” on early project work – why not see what happens if you skip the tutorials and hide the handouts? After some early confusion (where you will have to refrain from jumping in with the rescue) you may see new patterns emerging.

I know I’m not waiting around for the perfect research to happen. I want to find out the “what if…” sooner rather than later.

Announcing – Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

book coverSo some of you may have noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet here lately. All my writing energy has been going to a good cause though! I’m happy to announce a new book: Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, authored jointly by yours truly,  Sylvia Martinez, and Gary Stager.

This book has been cooking a long time, fueled by our belief that many schools are heading away from what real learning looks like – projects that are student-centered, hands-on, and authentic. But there is a technology revolution out there that has the potential to change that. New materials and technology can be game-changers: things like 3D printing, microcomputers like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, sensors and interfaces that connect the physical world to the digital, and programming. At the same time, a vibrant “maker movement” is spreading worldwide, encouraging people to make, tinker, and share technology and craft.

Invent To Learn is for educators who want to learn about these new technologies and how they can work in real classrooms. But it’s not just about “stuff” – we explore teaching, learning, and how to shape the learning environment. By combining the maker ethos with what we know about how children really learn, we can create classrooms that are alive with creativity and “objects to think with” that will permanently change education.

Student leadership
One chapter of Invent To Learn is about how learning by doing also gives students a chance to become leaders in their schools and communities. Giving students access to modern creativity tools and technology is not about “jobs of the future,” it’s about real learning NOW.

Making for every classroom budget
Even if you don’t have access to expensive (but increasingly affordable) hardware, every classroom can become a makerspace where kids and teachers learn together through direct experience with an assortment of high and low-tech materials. The potential range, breadth, power, complexity and beauty of projects has never been greater thanks to the amazing new tools, materials, ingenuity and playfulness you will encounter in this book.

Check the Invent To Learn website for information on getting the print or Kindle version of the book, and also about professional development for your district.

2012 Most Popular Posts

It’s that time of year again! Here are the most popular posts (according to WordPress, anyway) from the blog.

  1. Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
  2. Games that encourage student teamwork and collaboration
  3. Happy Birthday Logo!
  4. 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab
  5. Engagement, responsibility and trust
  6. Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education
  7. Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
  8. Back to school – games for collaboration and teamwork
  9. Compare and contrast: using computers to improve math education
  10. Treasure trove for constructivist classroom projects

These are a mixed lot – for example, #3, “Happy Birthday Logo!” is about the 40th anniversary of the Logo programming language. As much as I’d like to believe that there is a massive resurgence of interest in children programming in Logo, it’s MUCH more likely that people are searching for birthday clip-art and stumble on this post. It’s also the case that for #6, “Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education” the mere mention of the immensely popular game “Halo” drives a lot of traffic. There are some interesting statistics in that post comparing the sales figures of Halo to the expectations for educational software, but I’m assuming that’s not the primary draw.

However, the traffic for #2, 4, 8, and 10, are all pretty on target. I believe that these articles do reflect interest in constructivism and a yearning for information about how to make classroom activities more authentic. I can see that the time spent on these articles by the “average” visitor is much higher. Someday I’ll get around to calculating a different popularity metric for my posts, something like page views  multiplied by viewing time so that the really popular posts reflect viewer interest, rather than just Google searches gone astray.

And of course, two of my Khan Academy posts made the top ten. The debate about Khan Academy is still going on strong, and has made it into the mainstream of American mass media. Although it’s nice when an educational topic does make it into the mainstream, it’s not so good when it reinforces the blandest and least interesting  teaching myths. Oh well, I suppose we could all be reading more about the Kardashians!


Back to School 2012 – Start your “year of empowerment” now!

Start the year off with hands on
Think you need to wait for kids to settle down and learn the basics before you let them do projects and hands-on work? Not according to this expert teacher.

What tech vision will you share?
What message does your Acceptable Use Policy send when it goes home with students for them and their parents to sign? This year, change overly complex, negative language to language that celebrates the potential of technology – and students.

Games for collaboration and teamwork
Want to create a more collaborative, constructivist classroom? Instead of traditional icebreakers, try these games that encourage collaboration and teamwork.

What do students want from teachers?
Listen to what students say they really want from teachers. And no, it’s not “more recess.”

Student technology leadership teams for laptop schools
Are you getting more devices this year? Laptops, iPads, iTouches, netbooks or going 1:1? Do you have enough tech support? Enough support for teachers using new technology? Enough support for students? No? Well then learn how students can be a great resource in laptop schools to ease the burden on overworked teachers and IT staff – and mentor other students. Genius bar, anyone?

Ten commandments of tech support
Ten ideas for making technology support more learner-centered and less network-centered.

8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab
Last but by far not least, if you are looking for some inspiration to post on your wall, here are 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab. These eight ideas give actionable advice to create opportunities for deep learning for all. (Also in Spanish)

Happy back to school!


Don’t show, don’t tell?

Don’t show, don’t tell? MITnews

Suppose someone showed you a novel gadget and told you, “Here’s how it works,” while demonstrating a single function, such as pushing a button. What would you do when they handed it to you?

You’d probably push the button. But what if the gadget had other functions? Would it occur to you to search for them, if your teacher hadn’t alluded to their existence?

Maybe, maybe not. It turns out that there is a “double-edged sword” to pedagogy: Explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery. A study by MIT researchers and colleagues compared the behavior of children given a novel toy under four different conditions, finding that children expressly taught one of its functions played with the toy for less time and discovered fewer things to do with it than children in the other three scenarios.

Read the rest of the article…

Khan Academy and the mythical math cure

My recent post about the differences between Salman Khan and Conrad Wolfram’s TED Talks (Compare and contrast: using computers to improve math education) brought a lot of traffic to the blog, some great comments, and more than a few Twitter conversations about how to teach math.

So I’d like to get more specific about what I think is wrong about the Khan Academy approach by writing about things I see as wrong with the way we teach math in the US.

No matter if we agree or not about Khan Academy, I’m fairly certain we can agree math learning is not going as well as we’d like (to say the least.) Too many people are convinced by the system that they “hate math”, and even students who do well (meaning, can get decent test scores) are often just regurgitating stuff for the test, knowing they can safely forget it shortly afterward.

There is plenty of blame to go around… locked-in mile-wide inch-deep curriculum, focus on paper and pencil skills, lack of real world connections, assessments that are the tail that wag the dog of instruction, a culture that accepts “bad at math” as normal, teacher education programs that have don’t have enough content area specialization, … you can probably add to this list.

I can’t tackle all of these. But if you are interested, I’d like to share my thoughts about Khan Academy and a few epic math myths that are relevant to a discussion of the Khan Academy. In America, these myths are so pervasive that even people who were damaged by the way they were taught themselves accept them and insist that their children be taught using exactly the same methods.

I think these myths explain both the widespread acceptance of Khan Academy as a “revolution” and also why in reality it’s not going to change anything.

Myth: Learning math is about acquiring a sequential set of skills (and we know the sequence)
I think people have a mental image of math that looks something like a ladder. You learn how to add single digit numbers – rung one. You learn 2 digit addition – rung 2. You learn 3 digit addition – rung 3. In this model, you get to rung 3 by throughly learning rung 1 and then rung 2.

The myth continues with the idea that the march up the ladder goes faster if we tell children exactly how to do the problems step-by-step. In the language of math instruction, these step-by-step processes are called algorithms. Some kids “get it”, some don’t, but we accept that as a normal way that learning happens, and “help” the ones who don’t get it by drilling them harder in the step-by-step process, or devising additional tricks and supports to help them “remember” how to solve the problem.

If they don’t learn (meaning pass tests), we take this as evidence that they haven’t practiced the steps well enough, and prescribe more of the same.

Khan Academy plays perfectly into this myth. Here are a convenient set of videos – you just find the one you need, push play and the missing rung in your mental math ladder is filled in.

A corollary to this myth is that we can test students for these discrete math skills, see which “rungs” are missing, and then fix that problem with more instruction and practice on that specific skill.

Let’s diagnose how we think about learning a simple math skill
When we teach 2-digit addition, we immediately introduce the algorithm of “carrying”. You should know, though, that the U.S. form of carrying is just one of many addition shortcuts, not handed down on stone tablets. It’s not used world-wide, nor is it something that people naturally do when adding numbers. But it’s cast in concrete here, so we teach it, then we practice that “skill”. With our ladder model in mind, if a child can’t answer the 2-digit problems correctly you do two things: 1) Do more practice on the rung under it, and 2) do more practice in the algorithm, in this case, carrying.

The problem is that if a student has simply memorized the right answers to rung 1 without real numeracy, reviewing carrying will not increase that understanding. In fact, it will reinforce the memorization – because at least they are getting SOMETHING right. They are like the broken watch that’s right twice a day. This issue gets worse as the math gets more complex – the memorization will not be generalizable enough to solve more complex problems.

A different vision of learning

“Some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not simply on acquiring new skills, but on acquiring new administrative ways to use what one already knows”. Papert’s principle” described in Marvin Minsky’s Society of the Mind.

If this is true, and since these administrative skills are not sequential, it makes it less likely that we really learn math in a sequential way. I think we’ve all had similar experiences, where a whole bunch of stuff suddenly makes sense.

This different vision of how people learn is called “constructivism“. It’s a theory of learning that says that people actively construct new knowledge by combining their experiences with what they already know. The “rungs” are completely different for each learner, and not in a specific order. In fact, rungs aren’t a very good metaphor at all.

“…constructivism focuses our attention on how people learn. It suggests that math knowledge results from people forming models in response to the questions and challenges that come from actively engaging math problems and environments – not from simply taking in information, nor as merely the blossoming of an innate gift. The challenge in teaching is to create experiences that engage the student and support his or her own explanation, evaluation, communication, and application of the mathematical models needed to make sense of these experiences.”Math Forum

Learning theory? What’s the point?
We need to talk about learning theory because there are different ones at play here. And to be complete, we are also going to need to talk about teaching theory, or pedagogy, along the way. Constructivism doesn’t mandate a specific method of teaching, but is most often associated with open-ended teaching, constructionism, project-based learning, inquiry learning, and many other models. Most of these teaching models have at the heart an active, social view of learning, with the teacher’s main role as that of a facilitator.

However, the teaching theory underlying most of American math education is instructionism, or direct instruction – the idea that math is best taught by explicitly showing students how to solve math problems, then having students practice similar problems. Direct instruction follows when you believe that math is made up of sequential skills. Most American textbooks use this model, and most American teachers follow a textbook.

This is important distinction when talking about Khan Academy. Khan Academy supports teaching by direct instruction with clear (and free!) videos. If that’s your goal, you’ve found the answer…. but wait…

Is clarity enough?
Well, maybe not. Even if you believe in the power of direct instruction, watch this video from Derek Muller, who wrote his PhD thesis on designing effective multimedia for physics education. Really, if you are pondering the Khan Academy question, you must watch this video.

“It is a common view that “if only someone could break this down and explain it clearly enough, more students would understand.” Khan Academy is a great example of this approach with its clear, concise videos on science. However it is debatable whether they really work. Research has shown that these types of videos may be positively received by students. They feel like they are learning and become more confident in their answers, but tests reveal they haven’t learned anything. The apparent reason for the discrepancy is misconceptions. Students have existing ideas about scientific phenomena before viewing a video. If the video presents scientific concepts in a clear, well illustrated way, students believe they are learning but they do not engage with the media on a deep enough level to realize that what was is presented differs from their prior knowledge. There is hope, however. Presenting students’ common misconceptions in a video alongside the scientific concepts has been shown to increase learning by increasing the amount of mental effort students expend while watching it.” – Derek Muller, Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

Derek makes an interesting point – clarity may actually work against student understanding. Videos that slide too smoothly into an explanation do not give a student a way to process their misconceptions and integrate prior knowledge. The very thing that makes the videos so appealing – Khan’s charisma, sureness, and clarity may lull the viewer into comfortable agreement with the presentation without really absorbing anything (Research references and Dr. Muller’s PhD thesis on this subject)

Hooks, not ladders
This goes back to my original point. People learn by reorganizing what they already have in their head and adding new information that makes sense to them. If they don’t have a “hook” for new knowledge, it won’t stick. The tricky part is, though, that these hooks have to be constructed by the learner themselves.

Wishful thinking about downloading new information to kids is just that – wishful thinking.

There is no doubt that Khan Academy fills a perceived need that something needs to be fixed about math instruction. But at some point, when you talk about learning math, you have to define your terms. If you are a strict instructionist – you are going to love Khan Academy. If you are a constructivist, you are going to find fault with a solution that is all about instruction. So any discussion of Khan Academy in the classroom has to start with the question, how do YOU believe people learn?

I have more to say about Khan Academy and math education in the US — this post turned into 4 parts!

Part 1 – Khan Academy and the mythical math cure (this post)
Part 2 – Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
Part 3 – Don’t we need balance? and other questions
Part 4 – Monday… Someday

My context for these posts: I fully admit I’m not an expert in math or math teaching, just an interested observer of K-12 education in the U.S. In my work, I have unique opportunities to see lots of classrooms in action and talk to lots of teachers. It means I get to see patterns and similarities in classrooms all over the country. I don’t intend to do a literature review or extensive research summary in these posts. This comes from my personal experience, my master’s degree in educational technology and draws from a subjective selection of research and sources that have had a deep impact on my thinking about learning. Finally, I am NOT trying to tell teachers what to do. I’m not in your classroom — that would be silly.

Project-ing Tech Literacy

More reaction to the new whitepaper Assessing Technology Literacy: The Case for an Authentic, Project-Based Learning Approach (Read more or download PDF)

From Education Week:

“A new whitepaper addressing recent calls for technology literacy education argues any such education should involve project-based learning, while a separate new report indicates the need for such education may soon increase. The whitepaper from Jonathan D. Becker, a grant evaluator for the U.S. Department of Education, and Cherise A. Hodge and Mary W. Sepelyak, doctoral candidates at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, insists that, despite contention over what exactly constitutes technology literacy, there is consensus in the 49 states with technology literacy goals that the construct is multidimensional, and that one of those dimensions is acting or doing. In other words, students don’t just observe technology. They interact with it, meaning any instruction involving technology literacy should include students using technology in an active or interactive way.”

via Project-ing Tech Literacy – Digital Education – Education Week.

Although they got Dr. Becker’s job wrong (he’s actually an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University,) it’s a nice analysis of the whitepaper! Hope you read it and share with principals, tech coordinators, and others wondering what to do about student technology literacy.

Assessing Technology Literacy: The Case for an Authentic, Project-Based Learning Approach (PDF)