Blaming the new new thing for an old old problem

In Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction in the New York Times last month, reporter Matt Richtel opened up a gold mine of frustrated parents, educators and brain researchers all blaming digital devices for distracting youth from their real jobs of getting good grades and doing what they are told. I guess before radio cars TV phones computers no youth ever failed to do their chores or complete their homework. How shortsighted and forgetful are we as a culture?

The obligatory human interest lead-in to the story, Vishal Singh, a soon-to-be high-school senior, is initially portrayed as someone being led down the dark path of destruction by his wanton digital ways. He plays computer games for 10 hours a week (OMG,) hasn’t read an assigned book, and he has a Facebook account that sometimes he updates at 2AM. This is obviously a life going down the drain.

In the modern day equivalent of “your face might freeze that way,” the article quotes brain researchers who claim that young brains are being permanently harmed by multi-tasking.

The same article that claims that youth can’t pay attention to anything because of all the stimulation also portrays young Vishal Singh as someone deeply involved in digital film-making and storytelling. In fact, he gets A’s in those subjects and is pursuing it for college and career. He’s also the on-call tech support and web designer for his family.

So which is it people, computers cause your brain to decay or not? Perhaps it only causes brain rot in things that are of no interest to you? I hardly think it’s the computer that is causing good grades and deep learning in subjects of interest, and bad grades in subjects this young man does not care as deeply about. Seriously, this is new? Do I have to find a quote from Plato or Socrates complaining about how youth don’t pay attention nowadays (and probably blaming it on newfangled stone tablets?)

After a few other examples of students who text, play video games or do other horrifying things like get B’s, the article revisits Vishal. He is editing video for a school project, meticulously crafting a few seconds to convey the precise feeling and tone that he wants. He doesn’t check Facebook, he doesn’t get distracted  – amazingly enough, his brain seems to function just fine. He is neglecting his other homework, though, Latin and an economics essay. The article comes to a remarkable conclusion – that the difference is “interactivity”. Sigh.

This is so obviously wrong that it’s almost dumb. It’s not about clicking on stuff, or even brains or computers, it’s about interest and having an amazing tool at your fingertips. The computer is unlocking the world to young people, and it’s a bit more interesting than Latin worksheets. The computer is also the right tool for the student who IS interested in Latin or economics, bringing them together with others of like mind and doing actual work.

Do I believe that youth should be free to do whatever they want with no limits or expectations? No, that’s just a silly exaggeration. I believe that using computers and technology, youth have extraordinary new access to communities of interest, expertise, and choices. And what I would like to see is that people stop blaming computers and vilifying youth just because they have their own unique interests and goals, and use the tools of the day to reach them.


Constructivist Celebration @ NYSCATE

Well, it’s official, there will be a Constructivist Celebration in partnership with the annual NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education) conference in Rochester, NY.

Strong National Museum of Play
Rochester, NY
Sunday, Nov 22, 2009

The Constructivist Celebration is an opportunity for you to let your creativity run free with the world’s best open-ended software tools and enthusiastic colleagues who share your commitment to children, computing, creativity and constructivism. You might think of this stimulating event as a spa day for your mind and soul!

Best of all, the Constructivist Celebration @ NYSCATE is being held at the Strong National Museum of Play, a great setting that should prove inspiring and fun.

The day kicks off with a keynote, by Gary Stager on “Creative Computing”. By the way, for you Stager fans, this will be the only chance to see Gary at NYSCATE this year.

Then you will enjoy five hours of creativity on your own laptop using open-ended creativity software provided by consortium members FableVision, Inspiration, LCSI, and Tech4Learning. Representatives of the Constructivist Consortium will be there to assist with your project development.

Plus you get to keep the software and have a fabulous lunch!

For more details and registration, see the Constructivist Consortium registration website. (If you want to register for BOTH the pre-conference celebration and NYSCATE at the same time, click here to go to the NYSCATE website. You will be asked to become a NYSCATE member, but this is free!)

I’ll be co-leading this event, so I hope to see you there!


Constructivist Celebration in the Northwest

The first ever Constructivist Celebration in the Pacific Northwest is an opportunity for you to let your creativity run free with the world’s best open-ended software tools in a collaborative setting with enthusiastic colleagues who share your commitment to children, computing, creativity and constructivism. You might think of this as a spa day for your mind and soul!

Pacific Northwest Constructivist Celebration
Saturday May 16, 2009
Puget Sound ESD (Renton, WA – Seattle area)

Participants will enjoy the day’s activities, complimentary creativity software and a hearty lunch all for just $55. This event is a joint effort between the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE), and the Constructivist Consortium.

Dr. Dennis Harper, founder of Generation YES will be there too!

Go to for more information and to register. Space is limited and past events have sold out quickly.


Student-built computer/projector cart project

This terrific idea just came in from Don Kinslow, a GenYES teacher at Parkview Elementary in Chico, CA. His students built carts with computers and projectors, ready to go for classroom use.

Aaron the Cart Quality Inspector
Aaron, the Cart Quality Inspector

Here’s his story:

Step 1: I had cancelled a regularly scheduled GenYES meeting the week before we went out for Winter Break because many of the students told me that they had other obligations in preparation for Chanukah and Christmas. To my surprise, several students (Karla, Rosa, Aaron, Monique, Ana Cristina, Evangelina and Rebeca) showed up anyway begging to do something GenYES-like. So, I gave the okay. The students formed teams to work on this really fun and exciting project.

Step 2: Each team received a box with a computer cart to build, a refurbished computer, an LCD projector, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, speakers and a 25 foot long power strip. I showed them a cart that I had already built and prepared with all the technology devices. Then after observing my cart, they got to work…or was it play?

Step 3: The teams opened their cart box, read the instructions and started putting together what must have seemed like a 3D puzzle. Once the carts were built and ready for the technology devices, Rebeca and her GenYES friends decided to name their carts as if they were newborns. So, instead of Cart 1, Cart 2, and Cart 3, we got Mia Pink, Banana 2, and Roly Poly. Next, the teams got to work on setting up the refurbished computer, an LCD projector, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, speakers and a 25 foot long power strip on the newborn carts. This part was more challenging for the teams. Even though they had my example to work from, the quantity of cables to connect was difficult for a few of the students. So, Aaron, a 6th grader, who seemed to have more experience with this type of task, took on the role of Quality Inspector.

Step 4: With the computer carts finished and test run, GenYES students took them to their new classrooms and introduced Mia Pink, Banana 2 and Roly Poly to the receiving teachers. Of course, the teachers were super excited to get their new carts!

This is a terrific idea, and not simply because the teachers got equipment pre-configured and ready to plug in. It also gave a strong message to the whole school community that students can and will be responsible partners in using technology. These students built something of value, not for a grade, but for pride, and learned a lot while doing it. And yes, the names the students gave the carts are cute, but there’s more than meets the eye here as well.

Giving students ownership of their own learning is more than an abstract idea. In an institutional environment where everything is bland and uniform, having an identity stands out. Ownership can be simple and concrete, like the idea of giving the carts names or decorating them. Suddenly, they become more than just the object by itself. They start to represent the children – and are special, just like the children themselves.

If you doubt this, just ask these kids if Mia Pink, Banana 2 and Roly Poly are better than the other carts without names!


Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge 2009

Ever question why technology seems to have gone missing in so many math and science classrooms? What happened to the “compute” in computing? Wondering what STEM really looks like?

Yes, technology, math, and science can be friends!

Constructing Modern Knowledge is organizing a one-of-a-kind educational event for January 22, 2009 at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy. Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge is a minds-on institute for K-12 teachers, administrators and technology coordinators looking for practical and inspirational ways to use computers to enhance S.T.E.M. learning. Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge is a pre-conference event for Educon 2.1, an innovative conference and conversation about the future of education.

The presenters represent high-tech pioneers and seasoned veterans at the forefront of innovation in math, science and computing. Read more about them here.

Come to Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge and stay for Educon 2.1!

  • Early-bird registration (before December 15) – $100
  • Regular registration – $130

You may register for both Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge and Educon 2.1 with one click.