Education and the Mac

Martin Levins
10 December, 2007
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Would you be happy as a teacher if your students demonstrated creative thinking, the construction of knowledge, and developed innovative products and processes using technology? What if they did this by applying existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes; created original works as a means of personal or group expression; used models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues and also identified trends and forecast possibilities?

These are the newly added aims of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) although the philosophy behind them has had over a thirty-year history. You may recognise some names in that history: Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, then Seymour Papert, who, with Alan Kay, designed the computer programs Logo and Smalltalk respectively.

Alan Kay was the keynote speaker at the recent Educomm conference, where he made a lot of the scientist Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who was burned at the stake because he raised questions about the Church’s teachings by relying on measurements rather than hearsay. Kay noted that a lot of what our students face is filtered hearsay.

He believes a lot of current curriculum as being the equivalent of “air guitar” rather than real guitar. Classroom experiences are essentially not “doing it”. Even though government testing may indicate an increase in student ability over the years, it is referenced to irrelevant benchmarks based on recall of knowledge, not “doing it”. Science may now consider experimentation as important but kids rarely do a real experiment; lab work is mostly performed to confirm existing knowledge and any departure from the expected outcome is attributed to a “bad experiment”!

In other words, lip service to true Science. Instead of the student investigating a relationship between current and voltage, it’s the straight line confirming Ohm’s work that they are expected to achieve.

Maths doesn’t fare much better. I don’t believe that we teach Mathematics in Australian schools — we teach Arithmetic. I know (some) teachers have moved on from the “do the exercises A through to J and check the answer in the back of the book” approach, but rarely do relationships get truly explored. Rarely does the beauty that is Mathematics get to show through the bulky clothing of cramming as much “Maths” as possible into a curriculum.

And it doesn’t make sense. Mathematics texts tell us that “x” is a variable, then ask the student to solve an equation such as 4x = 16, making x equal to 4 which is a constant.

Consider the alternative: using Papert’s Logo for a student to investigate what happens when a variable is used to describe motion, for a student to understand “circleness” rather than learn the equation for a circle.

Kay demonstrated this alternative with work by year one students who essentially derived second-order differential equations by investigating motion to build a true understanding.

The challenge for teachers, he says is to find situations with relationships that can form useful explorations by children. This doesn’t seem to be taught in pre-service courses.

At the National Education Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta, held shortly after Educomm, my benchmark for current education philosophy has been the number of people at the Classroom Jeopardy expo stand. Here contestants vie for t-shirts and other trinkets by answering game show style questions. From a central, huge booth holding 60 people, this has shrunk by a factor of ten.
The US government’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, which, by its very nature, mandated rote learning, is beginning to lose whatever currency it had.

Just before NECC, I was treated to the “Constructivist Consortium Celebration” workshop at the Atlanta botanical gardens.

Under the direction of the District Administrator’s Gary Stager, Generation YES, LSCI, Tech4Learning, SchoolKit, Inspiration and Fablevision all came together.

The organisation of the day was simple: take a hundred educationalists, with laptops and cameras, add some open-ended software that encourages play and creative expression and stir.

The conversation swung rapidly to the feeling that the educational winds were changing, and the announcement of ISTE’s new standards at NECC further inflated the windsock.

I hope that we can reman focussed, and not distracted by the supposed silver bullets — “the next big things” such as Web 3.0 and interactive whiteboards — and can sustain a balance between shiny stuff and what we’re actually there for.

ISTE has published a call for participation at NECC 2008 in San Antonio. An online form will be available on the web site by September 5 and the deadline for submission is October 3, 2007.

I’d love to see you there. Maybe we could demonstrate some Maths teaching?

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