“The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way”
– Seymour Papert (1972, as quoted on p. 19)
In my initial post, which began this series, I wrote about the introduction to Libow Martinez and Stager’s book Invent to Learn where they gave us a brief overview of the maker movement and its place in society today. In the previous article in this series, looking at the first part of chapter one, we were given an overview of the historical origins of the maker movement and its pedagogical relationships with some of the giants of education including Piaget, Montessori and Dewey. This article will move through the remainder of chapter one, bringing us up to more recent times.
Technology often comes across in the media and policy speeches as being some sort of panacea for education, as though decades of low-investment in schools and teachers can be ‘fixed’ by giving students with only a few years left of their schooling a laptop as was the case during the Australian Digital Eduction Revolution. Seymour Papert’s quote above is something that the authors called “…revolutionary for 1968, but sadly remains a perceptive critique of schooling today” (p.19).
While technology can be an amazing enabler of creativity and critical thinking, it can only be such if it is utilised in a way that empowers students to be creative and critical thinkers. The current boom in the use of coding in schools, being labelled as a foundation skills that is as important as mathematics and reading only six months ago an article in The Age newspaper, is rather late considering that Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published a paper in 1971 entitled Twenty Things to Do with a Computer that included coding, mechatronics, mathematical modelling and a range of other, then highly advanced learning activities that would by highly multi-disciplinary. The article also included a case for 1:1 computing, which has also taken education by storm as a seemingly new idea in the last decade.
Papert’s contention in 1972 was that the newly popular concept of gamification; specifically, game design, would be a powerful way of teaching children mathematical concepts. In 1996, Papert wrote that John Dewey’s argument for a move away from authoritarian classrooms was now more epistemologically accessible due to computers, and that the ultimate pressure for change in the structure of classrooms will come from children themselves. The potential for technology to change how students learn concepts across the sciences, mathematics, literacy and the creative arts is monumental, but the thinking about learning needs to catch up. Papert likens the great educational thinkers such as Dewey, Montessori and Vygotskys, to name but a few, to Leonardo DaVinci. The ideas are new and exciting and powerful, however there is not the infrastructure in which to properly implement the ideas.
The authors wrote that the Sputnik crisis created an environment where investment in hands-on science and mathematics was politically and socially popular, as were creative arts programs in schools and this led to less coercive schooling, with greater emphasis placed on individuality. It was, however, during the early 1960s in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia that making first became entrenched in an educational context. The community had been ravaged during World War Two and the decision was made to invest heavily in the rebuilding of the city with a long-term plan; the education of its youngest. The Regio Emilia Approach is the result of those years where the town’s infant and toddler care centres were built and run around the philosophies of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and others, placing the child at the centre of the learning process.
From the Reggio Emilia Early learning (Australia) website:
“It’s only natural that children who are regarded in a warm and positive light will always succeed at a higher level than those who are judged in a limited or negative way.
Libow Martinez and Stager write that the teacher’s primary role in this learning context is a researcher tasked with preparing a learning environment suitable for a child based upon an understanding of that child’s thinking and interests. Vastly different from the role of a traditional teacher. There is now around fifty years worth of documentation and research on the Reggio Emilia Approach, and the authors contend that it “…may represent the world’s most mature model of sustained constructionism and progressive education” (p.23).
It is the advent of microcomputing that heralded the next large step forward for progressive education, with Neil Gershenfeld predicting that the next technological revolution would be one wherein users would make the tools they needed to solve their problems, something is now happening thanks to the growing use of Three-Dimensional Printers in school, industry and at home (p.24). This is leading to a situation where students are now being seen as inventors, teachers and collaborators with the driving force being mutual need, interest and style (p. 25). Thinking this through cause something of an “A-ha!” moment for me, as I connected the dots between the Reggio Emilia Approach, making and the Gershenfeld’s prediction, I realised that what we call self-directed learning is very often not that at all. It is in actuality, Teacher-led, but with less teacher involvement in the doing.
This has profound implications for teachers, as there is also a growing body of literature to help guide and inspire adults ‘in charge’ of children’s learning to incorporate making in their pedagogical practice, such as Make magazine, Howtoons, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) and 62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer (and Other Discarded Electronics). Materials are also becoming cheaper and easier to access, including MakeDo, Suguru, MakeyMakey and a range of others, beyond the household items like empty boxes, bed sheets, cushions and lego.
All of these factors are coming together to create an environment ripe for children to be the creators of the learning, as evidenced in Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show series of Youtube videos.
Libow Martinez and Sager write that it was in the late 1960s when Papert asked whether it was the computer programming the child or the child programming the computer, and it is now in the early twenty-first century that we have reached a point where it is now relatively easy for any child to access the equipment and information required for them to program a computer. Indeed, it is now becoming common for coding to be a part of a school curriculum, a movement that is becoming stronger, seemingly unchecked.
I would very much like to hear what my readers think about making in general, and making in the school context in specific. Thank you, as always, for reading, and you can find the other articles in this series by clicking here.
“I do not think there is nay thrill that can go through the human hear like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. Such emotions make a forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”
– Nikola Tesla, quoted on p. 11 of Invent to Learn
Martinez and Stager’s first chapter in Invent to Learn is interestingly titled An Insanely Brief and Incomplete History of Making and begins with the above quote from Nikola Tesla. The chapter provides an overview of the historical figures who have played a part in making and tinkering and some of the trends that have been felt through the various ebbs and flows of making over the course of history. There are links made to education, of course, and it is interesting to read some of the historical links between education and making, particularly in the twentieth century with the advent of ‘toys’ like Lincoln Logs and, eventually, Lego.
The first sentence in the chapter is at first glance a bold one; “[m]aking things, and then making those things better is at the core of humanity.” When you stop and take a moment to think about it, it is one of the defining characteristics of our species, is that there has always been an element of curiosity which drives the iterative creative process of inventing and making. It is interesting, I think, that in many stories of other societies, that curiosity-driven innovation and making is one of the characteristics which is consistently absent, though often shown in varying formats. Examples abound of this, including Wizarding society in the Harry Potter saga, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and from a certain perspective, the Elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga.
Marinez and Stager write that there is a historical acceptance at the core of humanity that direct experience with skills and concepts is where learning occurs at its best, or to phrase it another way, learning by doing is historically accepted as the best way to learn. It is their contention that the maker movement represents “…our best hope for reigniting progressive education” (p.11). The first example that is held up, is someone posited to be the greatest maker in our history, a statement which I would agree with, as I can think of no person more prolific and masterful in such a vast array of disciplines, as Leonardo Da Vinci. The authors moved on from Da Vinci to discuss some of what they termed, the unsung heroes of making.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 publication of Emile, or On Education, is held up as an early discussion of the natural abilities of the child and the need for free development. There has been substantial criticism levelled against the treatise, however, not having read it, I cannot comment either way. Following on from Rousseau was Johann Pestalozzi, who held to the belief that not only was learning a natural occurrence, but that it was necessary for learning to be balanced between the heart, the head and the hand, best achieved by first-hand experience. Our understanding of Kindergarten, it seems, was developed by Friedrich Froebel, who in turn was influenced by Pestalozzi when he studied under him. Froebel leaned heavily upon learning by doing in his kindergarten design, and these ideas were also taken up by Maria Montessori.
Many of the ideas of some who are held up as giants in educational history, John Dewey, Montessori, Froebel and Pestalozzi were formalised and confirmed by Jean Piaget, who’s publication To Understand is to Invent strongly advocated for learning by doing, a theory of learning which became constructivism. Constructvism holds many strong and clear links to both Froebel and Pestalozzi’s ideas. Piaget took this a step further, and championed the idea of teachers as polymaths, as they would hold the skills and knowledge to enable their students to become polymaths, à la Leonardo Da Vinci, perhaps.
Piaget believed that abstract or theoretical concepts and ideas, which students often struggled with, were both solved and understood with a different attitude when presented in a concrete situation, related to either a student interest, or another concept with which the student is familiar. Piaget extended this by indicating that instead of introducing a skill or concept with the pre-organised vocabulary needed to understand the learning focus, that instead, teachers should provide a learning environment appropriately grounded in action within which the real action will lead to the need for and easier integration of the specific vocabulary. I can understand Piaget's concept here, I believe. Having the need and the context for particularly vocabulary components allows for an immediate integration of those components as there is a frame of reference and need for them to be integrated, rather than them being abstract terms with no meaning.
Martinez and Stager moved on at this point and examined John Dewey’s relationship with education and making. Dewey’s belied was that learning, or the education process, was a lifetime process of growth driven from personal motivation. Dewey strongly advocated for authentic and inter-disciplinary grounded in reality using an iterative design methodology. Dewey held the belief that the standards of adults should be subordinated to the needs of children.
The concept of using careful observation and and previous experience in learning is not new, and were necessary for early humans in order to hunt, fish, grow crops and build shelters and housing. It is pointed out that things reached a point in the seventeenth century where ‘gentleman amateurs’ were a significant component of the scientific community, and that amateur scientists contributed much to our bank of knowledge over the years through the connection between ideas, people and disciplines. It is this connection which is foundational to today’s maker movement, made simpler than in previous generations through the use of computers and the internet.Martinez and Stager report the words of Norm Stanley at the First Annual Citizen Science Conference in June 2002:
“Science, as we know it today, would not be what it is without the contributions of amateurs. In fact I think it not too brash a statement to assert that basic science and what we know as the scientific method was largely developed by amateurs. From alchemists in search of the Philosophers’ Stone to monks investigating Nature in pea gardens to the gentlemen amateurs of the seventeenth century on, they were developing the experimental/observational/hypothetical approach of modern science. True, with the passage of time the role of the amateur, working independently, has diminished as experimental techniques became highly sophisticated and string and sealing wax no longer sufficed for doing cutting-edge science. Despite vicissitudes, amateur or recreational science remains healthy today, as witness the present gathering.”
-Norm Stanley, p. 15 of Invent to Learn. Full text of speech available here.
Stanley’s full speech talks about way in which it was quite common for children to conduct their own experiments using the then-popular chemistry kits, and Martinez and Stager comment that these home chemistry labs captured the imagination for around two hundred years until “…ninnies suddenly determined that fire, chemistry and fun were just too dangerous for young people” (p.15). From these chemistry labs, it was the introduction of Lincoln Logs, Constructor Kits, Meccano and Lego that allow model-making from users’ imaginations, and that toys of this ilk are now capable of making the real thing, in many cases, as demonstrated in the below video.
It was the self-proclaimed hackers of The Tech Modern Railroad Club (TMRC) in the late 1950s and the essential belief that taking things apart, understanding how they function and then creating new and more interesting things from this knowledge is perhaps the first recognisable maker movement, in the terms of which we would understand it today, and is echoed in the motto of the maker movement; “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it” (p.17).
The maker movement is something that I can see value in, and I certainly agree with the general principle of learning by doing. Implementing this in schools, where teachers, for better or worse, ware required to teach specific content and students are required to sit specific standardised tests, with funding and public perception of the quality of education and teachers riding in large part on those tests, makes it challenging to sell the concept to many school leaders, particularly given the increasing amount of litigation that seems to be occurring. I distinctly remember in Year Six, reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch and us having to design, and create an alternative method of getting lunch to the lighthouse keeper. We were engaged, learning, problem solving, thinking creatively and critically, failing and then analysing why we failed…it was such a rich environment, but I cannot recall the last time I have seen something similar. The safety concerns (litigation fears) make it difficult, but it is a barrier that should be overcome as it has such rich scope for learning.
I thank you for reading through Part One of my Review of the first chapter of Invent to Learn. The next article will be be published next Tuesday, and will begin with Martinez and Stager’s introduction of Seymour Papert.