Have you ever sat through a presentation on a teaching technique or philosophy that was antithetical in mode to the epistemology being espoused? Me too. I’ve seen so many powerpoints masquerading as inspiring information that it has become the default expectation. However, when Gary Stager is the one designing the institute, you might as well throw your expectations out the window. That said, even Gary started off his Constructing Modern Knowledge institute with a keynote slideshow last week. After his introductory speech however, the institute departed from the norm and therefore the comfort zone of most of those in attendance.
Gary arrived with boxes of books, suitcases of legos, keyboards, software, markers, clay, and bubblegum – the very retro-bring-back-childhood Double Bubble variety – to inspire a sense of playful creativity in the service of a project. Unlike most institutes where you may have one hour, or three, or maybe even one whole day to work on a project, Gary informed us that we would spend the bulk of the four days engaged in a challenging project. Oh, and we had to come up with something to do. Now. There was no list, except that generated from those in the group who were willing to speak up. To have created a rigid syllabus before meeting the individual learners would have been decidedly un-constructivist. The man modeled what he was preaching about, and we were thrown into the deep end.
The challenge was perhaps more than some had bargained for. It’s been interesting in the days after the conference to hear from attendees how uncomfortable they were with this format, how unsupported some of them felt at first. Unsupported is an interesting choice of words; I wonder how much was lack of support and how much was the lack of direction, the direction that we in education have come to expect in our PD experiences. We sit, the expert preaches, we watch a few slides, maybe a video, participate in a group activity, perhaps respond to a survey via cell phone if they presenter is really hip. Then we go our own way to do what we will with the new/not so new information, happy that there are some folks out there who “get it” and that we have a new tool or to to put into service (if it isn’t blocked by our district). CMK08 was NOT following this model, and there didn’t seem to be any obvious lifelines except to jump in and start working.
My preconceived notions revolved around getting a chance to learn about lego robotics and an introduction to logo. Notice I said “learn about”, not “do” – I figured someone would lead us through some exercises, show us some plans, maybe discuss how best to implement these new (to me) tools in the classroom, and I’d receive enough information to work with it later. Nope. Gary told us to take off our teacher hats, and he meant it. From what I observed, the quicker one transitioned from teacher to learner, the better things went. We learned about learning from the inside out. We picked up the tools and started tinkering, implementing our own bricolage by playing around with what we had before us. This was not pointless; we came up with a project and jumped in, so we had a focus. Over the course of the four days some projects evolved into totally different products, some stuck with the same tool, some learners tried a new tool each day. The experience was truly what you made of it; passive learning was not the goal.
As educators, we all know that learning through doing is fine, but you have to reflect on your learning to cement it in place. Gary provided opportunities each day for us to be challenged by fascinating, intellectual, and thought provoking speakers. Turns out Gary is friends with some pretty neat folks. After working for a few hours on our projects, we were able to listen to Alfie Kohn regale us with his thoughts on education. Why do we continue to have an educational system that serves our economic system rather than the intrinsic value of learning? That’ll be worth a blog post on its own.
Peter Reynolds shared one of his Fable Vision products, Animation-ish, with the group. Peter embodies accessible creativity, walking us through the “I can’t draw” portal in a way that makes one believe that everyone can draw, or at least draw-ish. Melinda Kolk led the group through the Tech4Learning software and spent lots of time with those working with the various facets of those programs.
Bob Tinker is perhaps the most animated, energetic and enthusiastic person I’ve ever met. His run through of the Molecular Workbench was overwhelming – and this is not said lightly in the company of everything else we did last week. I’m so glad there are people like Bob committed to making open source tools so those of us in public education can use them! We also benefitted from having Cynthia Solomon from the OLPC project, Sylvia Martinez of Generation Yes, and John Stetson at the institute for all four days. At the end of each day we wrapped up with a group reflection, each individual adding in their thoughts and epiphanies for the day. By bouncing the active learning off the sounding board of a strong thinker, then allowing us hear the voices of our peers for context, we were given the pieces needed to arrive at our own understanding of how constructivist approaches work.
Have I mentioned Marvin Minsky? Gary, with a trick up his sleeve as usual, arranged for us to meet with Marvin Minsky at the MIT offices of One Laptop Per Child on Wednesday night. (I’m guessing Cynthia Solomon might have played a key role in this event too.) While I’ll be reflecting on his comments for a long time to come, my favorite idea was when he talked about playing chess. To paraphrase, Minsky said that chess is hard work, and with half the effort of a game of chess, he could solve a theorem that would benefit mathematics for 1,000 years – and he’s never played a game of chess since. I wonder what my students will make of that thought, in light of the hours they put in on strategy-driven video games. I know I’m putting it in the context of the less than useful things we have kids do at school in the service of “getting an education”. Minsky was full of one-liners. “Surely traveling is out of date.” “Do things because you have goals, not because it’s pleasant.” “Lego is 2 ½ dimensional.” It was a fabulous experience to which my comments here do not do justice.
soon to come . . . Part 2 : Gear Ratios and If Else statements