Tag Archives: constructivism

Hands or Brains?

This House believes that Africa needs more vocational training than academic education.

It was a lively debate and an exciting end to the eLearning Africa 2015 conference in Addis Ababa. A panel of African and international dignitaries – most of them holding PhD’s – debated back and forth over whether or not the greatest need for the African continent was for formal academic education or for practical vocational training. The audience – teachers, government representatives, professors – followed the argument actively, with laughter, applause and a very lively Twitter stream.

As I listened and participated, I reflected on my own education and that of my daughter. What was most valuable for me? What will do her the most good? Sure, there are specific needs here in Africa, but in general what is the best aim of education? Perhaps this debate should be about what the world needs, not just Africa.

It’s not an either/or situation: nobody was seriously advocating that we should only have one or the other. The question at hand was which one would contribute the greatest value to African societies.

I’m an academic. I’ve got a couple of degrees (no PhD for me yet) & I’ve spent my whole career teaching and leading schools. Books are my friends and favorite purchases. Thinking comes more naturally to me than acting or doing.

And yet, my beliefs about this issue have changed over the years. I’ve come to realize that there is great value in practical, non-academic work and study. I definitely believe that what will benefit Africa & Africans (and people around the world) the most is vocational training and not pure academics. (While still believing we need both and that academics is more valuable and important for some people!)

boy-667804_640This ties in to the current educational trend of making and tinkering. Papert’s constructionist take on education resonates today with many teachers and many schools. Students learn through inquiry and practical tasks – designing, building, adjusting, adapting. There’s a whole new edge with modern tech: 3D printers, programmable fabrics, conductive threads and tapes, robotics, hackable Arduino boards, etc. But it’s still a valuable experience for kids to work with Legos, wooden blocks, etc. Children learn by doing. And practical, hands-on doing is often more valuable than reading or watching.

I’ve also learned that there is far more value in practical work than society often gives it credit for. My own experiences in fixing broken appliances, building things for my home, and repairing ailing computers have shown me that there is great value and joy in such practical tasks. When I finish a project, I have such satisfaction – it is greatly rewarding personally, and if I have done the task for someone else I feel like I have contributed to someone else’s life. Building computer programs have given me similar rewarding experiences, with more mental than physical work.

There is also great mental work in such tasks. Matthew Crawford earned a PhD but runs a motorcycle repair shop. In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, he states that “there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.” He argues that there is great value in manual craft work, and that such work (excluding factory assembly-line work) requires much analysis, thinking and serious decision making. I concur and know that when I’ve worked with tools on a project I have to seriously concentrate and think about what I’m doing.

When I think about my daughter’s educational future, I fear the long academic slog. I shudder at the thought of the heavy load of work the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program inflicts on teenagers …and don’t get me started at the ridiculously onerous and painful process of final exams! She might be suited for such a process (I was), but I have my doubts. And to what end? If she goes through that, succeeds, and proceeds to university, etc. what will be her lot in life and reward? Working in an office? Becoming a teacher? (It is a great job!) Lecturing at university?

construction-659898_640The alternative might be that she learns a trade. Perhaps she becomes a plumber or construction worker. Learned friends may sneer and boast of their children’s careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers or…

But I don’t think that those other careers are necessarily better. As computers get smarter and algorithms get more finely tweaked, there’s a good chance that lawyers, bankers, and other “brain workers” will be replaced by computer programs. And many of these high-profile careers (doctors, notoriously) require long hours and involve a great deal of stress.

People need choices. Some people are driven to be doctors. Some people are suited to academic research and study. Some people are not. Our educational systems need to value all types of students. Our societies need to recognize that a plumber is just as important and valuable as a doctor.

I was glad to hear that the conference attendees voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposal. Africa – and the world – needs to value vocational training more. Carpenters, plumbers (and entrepreneurs and computer programmers) make huge contributions to society.

I hope my daughter has choices. I’m happy for her to pursue whatever career gives her pleasure and satisfaction. As for me, I’m going to stop writing and go get my tools. I have a lamp that has a broken switch that is crying out for repair.

Hard = Good

It’s not intuitive. It’s too hard.

Such goes the typical dismissive comment on software or a website that someone isn’t familiar with. It’s a good way to diss an application without admitting that you don’t want to take the time to figure out how it works. Things should be so simple that anyone can just pick it up and immediately know what to do. Isn’t that how everything should be?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s a good thing that things are not easy to figure out, that it takes some effort. Maybe the constant work to make things effortless and intuitive means we are actually losing something.

Here are three things that happened to me today:

  1. A teacher expressed frustration at using LibreOffice because he couldn’t figure out how to format the page. He sent the file to me and told me to just do it – he didn’t have time for me to tell him what to do. I helped out …and told him the command to format a page was in the – surprise! – Format menu.
  2. An accountant came for help because she couldn’t log into her email. We’d closed it down because she’d followed a link on a phishing scam email and entered her username and password, so her account was taken over by spambots. This was despite repeated messages to everyone pointing out the dangers of phishing scams and that everyone should “Think before you click.”
  3. Someone else messed up and sent out an email to multiple recipients containing sensitive information. I was asked if I could delete all the emails. When I explained that it was impossible to delete it from all the recipients’ mail servers and that some might have already read the mail, I was greeted with incredulity that a recall wasn’t possible.

These are all examples of people who weren’t thinking. People who were just doing things without really considering what they were doing. People who were – if you will – intuiting.

Does it help them that they were used to just doing things? No. What they were engaging in was activities that required a little cognition and metacognition: trying to think about how a different piece of software would accomplish a task they were used to in a different way, reading and responding to messages that enticed and directed, composing messages that contained sensitive information. Unfortunately, none of these people really were thinking – they just reacted in ways they were used to and the result was not what was intended or wanted.

It’s one reason that I’ve become devoted to open source software. Such software is usually highly capable and feature-rich, but you often have to work at it. You have to think about what you want to accomplish and find out how to go and do it.

Another example: a colleague commented to me that he wanted his students to annotate PDF files. He had a Macbook and the bundled Preview application has some good annotation functions. His students who were using Ubuntu said they couldn’t do it in their PDF reader, so he’d asked for help in figuring out how the students could annotate the PDF documents.

In five minutes of searching, I found references to three software applications that could partially do the job – none satisfactorily. However, one website referred to a solution which jogged my memory and resulted in the best response. LibreOffice – which is installed on all our computers – can open a PDF and it has a wide variety of editing and markup tools. Problem solved!

Am I a genius? Am I an Ubuntu expert? Not at all. I just knew that I would have to go and look for the answer, test out possible solutions, and settle on one that worked the best in the given circumstances. That teacher could have done it. Any of his students could have done it. It didn’t take intelligence on my part – it just took the realization that the solution wasn’t intuitive but required some problem-solving.

As a teacher, and as a parent, this is the kind of thinking that I want my students (& child) doing. I want them analyzing a situation, considering what objective they want to achieve, and then looking for and analyzing potential answers. Isn’t that what all teachers and parents want? Do any of us really want our children simply intuiting the answers to their problems?

I realize that this is one perspective and that another one is simply: tools should be easy to use and we shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure them out. I get that. I shouldn’t have to Google how to use a screwdriver. However, most computing tools are less akin to a screwdriver and more similar to internal combustion engines. Those do really require some study and serious cognition.

So here’s to complicated software. It forces us to think.

Isn’t that great?

Deconstructing Learning

Can I try?

Quite possibly the greatest words a teacher can hear – this time they scared me silly.

It was about three-quarters the way through the lesson. I was working with just the 9th graders in class – the 10th graders were out doing some practice college entrance exam – and we were extending the work they’d done the week before. I had been away at the Learning 2.0 conference in Singapore, getting some fantastic professional development, and the students had disassembled and reassembled desktop PC’s, identifying and  researching the various components of a PC. Today, we were looking inside a (broken) hard drive and talking about storage and the difference between magnetic and sold-state drives.

The conversation strayed into the difference between computers and other electronic gadgets, particularly mobile phones. We talked about the similarities and differences, and students brought their phones out to examine them. Some asked about opening their iPhones and we talked about iOS vs. Android, Apple vs. other manufacturers, and the maker manifesto, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

That’s when Maxine asked if she could open her phone. I was hesitant but she was eager – it was an older Samsung phone (she also had an iPhone) and she was determined. I had visions of receiving a call from her parents complaining that I’d caused her to break her own phone …but it was a great learning moment. I would just have to cope with parental anger! So I sent her off to the Help Desk to get some screwdrivers and she came back a few minutes later, full of excitement.

The class all gathered around her desk as she started in. One boy brought out his phone to take some photographs. There was a noticeable buzz in the room as everyone was thrilled by her doing surgery on her working phone.  She got the screws out but was having difficulty getting the plastic backing off. The buzz started fading.

That’s when I really got over the fear that damage might be done. I took out my Android phone and handed it to Maxine. “Here, Maxine. Take mine apart.” The look in her eyes – and the amazement of the others – was literally priceless. Certainly it was more than the cost of the phone.  They were all excitedly chatting and the camerman switched to video. I laughed. “You all think that Maxine is going to break my phone, don’t you?” I asked. Maxine looked up at me, fear in her eyes. “Relax, Maxine. I trust you. You’ll do fine.”

Everyone was thoroughly engaged as Maxine took the screws out and then carefully prised off the plastic case. (She handed it to me when it got a little difficult.) We all examined the insides of the phone, identifying the powersupply (battery housing), storage (flash card slot), input (camera) and outpout (speaker). We talked about what else we couldn’t see, how we might take the screen off, etc. Kids were saying, “I’m going to do this at home!” (I urged caution! I told them of my fears of getting calls from their parents.) They were

That’s when I had my moonshot moment.

I looked at the students and asked them, “If we had a class or activity where you could take apart a toaster and find out how it works, build a lamp, change the plug on an appliance, explore how a car engine works, etc. would you want to do it.” All of them – especially (and most gratifyingly for this father of a 9 year old girl) the girls – all eagerly said, “Yes!” They were all buzzed about the idea and they were chatting about it as they filed out of class. (Maxine carefully reassembled my phone!) One boy came and talked with me about jailbreaking his phone.

So there’s my mission: build a makerspace for our students. I’ve got no budget, no space, no equipment. It will have to start slowly – maybe with an afterschool activity with some limited initiatives. But we can then build a space, get some tools and help students learn to dismantle, reassemble, fix, build, make, create.

It’ll be a challenge, but also fun. As a great man once said, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

10… 9… 8…

What does offline 21st Century Learning look like?

sparksIn a recent post, I argued against the assumption that 21st Century Learning requires a constant, always-on connection to the Internet. Such a requirement assumes that 21st Century Learning consists of blogposting, wiki editing, research, etc. This always-on connectivity would doom large chunks of the human race to old-style learning: many countries in Africa, South America and even Asia, rural areas in the US or Australia, various parts of Europe, etc.

In my view, “21st Century Learning” is more than just getting on to the Internet and using Twitter or Voicethread or WordPress or whatever. It’s a far richer experience than that. There are various definitions of what “21st Century Learning” is, but a quick summary and often-used convention is the 4C’s: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration & Critical Thinking. This moves beyond the basic “3R’s” of content (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic) into a skillset that is needed in the post-industrial, digital & connected world.

Can this be done without 24/7 connectivity? Certainly.

What would it look like? Here are just a few examples:

A Passion for Making and Learning and Sharing

A fantastic “poster child” for 21st Century Learning is Super-Awesome Sylvia. This young woman makes and builds things, creates “how-to” videos and shares them with the world. Simple, yes? What’s so special about that? You’d really have to watch one of her videos to understand. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that exciting? She definitely has talent and skill …and knows quite a lot, too. I predict big success for her throughout life. But how does this fit into education? She’s not doing this at school. (Quick question: COULD a student do this kind of thing in your school? How? When? With what tools? With what supervision? With what encouragement?) And is it really “21st Century Learning”?

Let’s look at the 4C’s:

  • Creativity: Sylvia’s work reeks of this. From her projects to the videos to her performance, she is a true creator.
  • Communication: With her fame and followers, she’s definitely an effective communicator. But even if she was working in obscurity, the way she can clearly and enthusiastically explain how to do something is fantastic communication.
  • Collaboration: Perhaps this is the least “21st Century” area of her work. She is collaborating with her dad to make projects & videos. But this is not group work.
  • Critical Thinking: Sylvia is constantly solving problems, working across traditional disciplinary boundaries, etc.

So how much 24/7 connectivity does she need? None. She’s doing her work offline: planning & working through projects, recording and editing videos, etc. She only needs a connection to upload her work.

Using Digital Tools to Demonstrate Skills – even non-existant ones!

Lasse Gjertsen was a post-secondary student studying animation. He created a video, called “Hyperactive,” as a result of an assignment.  This article by the Wall Street Journal describes his reaction:

The teacher “didn’t like it all,” Mr. Gjertsen recalls bitterly. Academic rejection, both at the British school and back at an animation program in Norway, left Mr. Gjertsen out of sorts.

Then, Gjertsen created the video “Amateur” . Both it and “Hyperactive” went viral. Gjertsen became famous, got job offers, etc. If you haven’t seen  “Amateur,” you really should. Go watch it.

Clever, isn’t it? It’s gripping and funny, too. And, if you read Gjertsen’s final notes, it’s amazing that he doesn’t play the drums or the piano. (He obviously has musical ability!) But what is most impressive is that this young man created something unique and original (“Creativity”) using basic digital tools (music composition software, videocamera, video editing software, etc.), working offline. He had to carefully plan out his video (“Critical Thinking”) and work out how to show himself playing two instruments – that he cannot play. He showed off a musical idea, and was able to produce funny and entertaining video (“Communication”). Weakness? Again, there’s no Collaboration here.

It’s telling, however, that something so unique, interesting and appealing (lets not forget that “Hyperactive” has over 7million hits and “Amateur” nearly 14million) was rejected by teachers.

Using 19th Century Tools in in a 21st Century Way

Another video that went viral was the movie that was made about Caine’s Arcade. Caine was a 9 year old boy who made a game arcade out of cardboard. He spent a whole summer planning games, thinking about what would work and what would be fun (“Critical Thinking”), and then building the arcade out of cardboard (“Creativity”). He got some help promoting his arcade, which then became a viral hit and inspired others to make their own cardboard creations (“Communication” and “Collaboration”).

Is there any question why multitudes of people have donated money to help send this clever young man to college? Do any of his teachers wonder how they can harness this boundless creativity and ingenuity in their classes?

Lessons for schools

The most notable thing about all these examples is the lack of collaboration. These creative people worked on their own outside of school. Collaboration is difficult in such a situation. Within school, however, collaboration is an easy thing to accomplish – it does not have to be collaboration around the world. Collaborating with classmates is an excellent and valuable skill. If these students’ teachers were able to harness their passions and creativity, imagine the phenomenal learning that would happen in the classroom.

Another point: these are all famous people. Their work went viral, spreading out around the internet. While that’s fantastic “communication,” it doesn’t happen to many people. What about non-famous examples? Are there examples of students doing offline creative, critically thoughtful, collaborative, communicative work?

In a forthcoming post, I will share some work that students I know have produced. Meanwhile, teachers  – share your students’ examples.