Tag Archive: Papert

There has been a recent push toward a more progressive approach to education that is likely to have a positive impact at all grades and across all subject areas. This move is based on Seymour Papert’s ideas of “constructionism” in which learning is demonstrated by the creation of artifacts that are separate from the learner herself. As Papert has said, it doesn’t matter if the expression is a poem or a sand castle – the fact that it exists outside the learner where it can be shared with others is the critical part. John Dewey famously said, “I don’t care what a child knows; I care what he can do with what he knows.”

This shift from knowing to doing is reflected in the Next Generation Science Standards where the focus is not on learning about science, but learning how to think and act like a scientist. The same approach applies to other subjects – from mathematics to the arts – and the benefit of this approach is that it engages students and increases their learning.

One of the strategies that supports this shift is inquiry-driven project-based learning in which students start with a compelling question that drives the creation of projects to provide an answer to the question. For example, suppose a class is exploring the seasons. In early grades, questions might deal with why certain holidays are held during particular seasons. In later grades, a question might be whether or not seasons exist on other planets. If you want to bring the arts into the topic, there are rich areas of exploration from the music of Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) to Monet’s seasonal paintings of haystacks. In fact, a good starting point for this module would be to use a mind mapping tool like Freemind Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 3.13.51 PM(http://freemind.sourceforge.net/) for students to use as they brainstorm a list of interesting questions. In short order, a list of 50-100 questions might get posed by a classroom full of students, any one of which could be an interesting project for a student. By having students work on individual questions and then sharing their work with the rest of the class, everyone benefits from the combined efforts and the depth of learning increases as a result.

What tool is best for creating projects? To me, the answer is Hyperstudio (http://www.mackiev.com/hyperstudio/). This product has amazing capabilities as a multimedia authoring tool. Basically, the user creates a stack of “cards” on the screen, each of which can have buttons, graphics, sounds, movies, narrations, text, etc. Once a project is completed it can be shared with others who can navigate through the stack to explore the project. In the case of a linear sequence of cards, a stack even can be converted to a movie for posting on YouTube. Because Hyperstudio works with both Macs and Windows, a student can start a project on one kind of computer and finish it on another. The versatility of this software is amazing.1 card sample

In fact, if it only did what I described, it would meet most people’s needs. However, as they say on late night television: “But wait, there’s more.” In addition to everything else, Hyperstudio has the built-in capability to interact with the Arduino interface card (https://www.arduino.cc/). This card connects to your computer through the USB port and allows you to read a wide variety of sensors (light, temperature, pressure, etc.) and control external devices (lights, motors, etc.) The result is that the virtual world of the computer is now extended to the physical realm, adding even more capabilities to student projects.

The Arduino is not without its challenges, however. First, the native programming language is a tricky to learn, especially for younger users. Second, the physical connection to sensors and lights requires additional components (resistors, etc.) that complicate the creation of a finished project.

Both of these challenges are nicely addressed with Hyperstudio. First, the programming tools for the Arduino are built into Hyperstudio using easy-to-understand commands that students at most grades easily can learn. Second, the need for external resistors, etc., is eliminated through the use of a plug-in card (called a shield) that greatly simplifies the process of making connections. This card is called the Hyperduino, (http:www.hyperduino.com).hyperduino

It plugs into the Arduino card and provides all the resistors an other components needed to supplement the lights, motors and sensors so the student can focus on the project itself, not the mechanics of connecting components. As Roger Wagner (designer of both Hyperstudio and the Hyperduino) has said: “The HyperDuino does for the maker movement what HyperStudio did for hypermedia: it makes it possible for everyone, regardless of age and experience, to create interactive maker projects.

The result is that student projects can have both a virtual and a physical component in which, in addition to a rich piece of multimedia on the computer screen, a physical model can be constructed with touch switches and LED lights that turn on or off to show aspects of the physical model that are related to what is being shown on the computer screen. The result raises the constructionist bar, and makes student projects even more compelling to those who experiment with them.

For example, if a student builds a physical model of something related to a season, the act of touching a switch can light up the model and have the computer go to a card related to the season and start playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The point here is that everything is created by the students.

Because Hyperstudio stacks can launch each other, the teacher can create a master stack with buttons that link to each student’s project. This becomes a really neat thing to display during open houses so parents can see (and explore) the work of their own children as well as the work of others in the class. The greatest benefit, though, comes from students sharing their work with each other. This sharing is likely to trigger new questions that can result in even more work on the topic – all without the direct intervention of the teacher.

The result is a huge leap away from the traditional text-book driven model of education with the bulk of the work being moved into the hands of the students themselves. In fact, with a project like this, it is possible that teachers may learn something they didn’t know before. The excitement that comes from new learning makes everyone eager to learn more.

As mentioned before, the constructionist approach described here cuts across grade levels and subject areas. One would he hard-pressed to find a curricular area for which it doesn’t apply.

As for us, we are busy doing workshops with teachers that explore both the pedagogical underpinnings of this approach, as well as the mechanics of working with Hyperstudio and Hyperduino. Because we want the workshop to have an immediate impact on classrooms, every participant receives both the Hyperduino kit (including the Arduino board) as well as a full licensed copy of Hyperstudio. To schedule a workhop at your school, e-mail us using the form below.

Painting over rust

In 1972, Alan Kay gave a speech at the ACM conference on the design of a computer for children (http://mprove.de/diplom/gui/kay72.html).  This presentation introduced the world to the Dynabook, a concept of Alan’s from the 60’s that he was pursuing at Xerox PARC in the 70’s.

His comment, at the time, is that much that passes for “change” in education (and elsewhere) is simply “painting over rust.”  It looks pretty for a day or two, but then the paint falls off and you are back where you started.  When we look at the world of personal computing since the 1970’s, we’ve seen lots of attempts to force fit failed educational models inside the new tools, giving the illusion of change where none existed.  Like Seymour Papert, Kay was one of the few visionaries who understood from the beginning that the power of computers in kids hands came from the artifacts they created themselves.  This model (Papert calls it “constructionism” says that it is the act of creating something in which a child shows her true learning.  Whether (as Papert suggests) it is a sand castle, a poem, or a computer program, the point is the same – the student is not treated as some vessel to be pumped full of stuff.  Instead, the child’s mind should be triggered to do what comes naturally – to make observations about the world around him, and to create and test models of this world in the quest for understanding.

Which brings us to tablets today.  All across the world, we are seeing huge installations of tablets as the next big thing in education.  While there is much to like about these devices (their true portability, long battery life, etc.) I am still waiting to see the kind of child-appropriate programming environment envisioned by Kay and by Papert (to name two examples) with which children can build and run their own models.  This software exists on netbooks, laptops, and all the other computers we now seem to have put on the back burner and, as a result, we may be (in the short term) making a huge step backwards.  Search for Logo, Squeak or Scratch to see what I mean.  At this point, precious little exists to let kids harness the true power of the tablets they will be getting.

Textbook publishers love tablets.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  This romance is destined to drive tablet use as a distribution medium for the same content that has failed to meet the needs of all learners for generations while creating the illusion of newness.  It is, in fact, just another layer of paint over the rust.

Will this change?  Apple banned Scratch (a logo-ish language for kids developed at MIT) from the iPad.  This was one of the most stupid decisions that company ever made.  In the Android world, I expect Scratch to appear sometime in the next few months (at least that is my hope).  There is a language called Frink that runs on Androids, and while not based on Logo, still allows kids to write their own programs.

As schools race to embrace tablets, let’s stand up and ask: “Are you painting over rust?”  That is a question worth asking.