Review of Invent to Learn Chapter One Part Two

“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 eduction 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 eduction 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.
The Reggio Emilia approach is to co-construct the curriculum with the children and their families to stimulate a free and open-sourced style of learning.
The approach encourages both children and teachers to brainstorm and discuss topics of interest. Children are encouraged to develop skills in problem solving, hypothesising, critical reflection and collaboration. They will be asked to document their ideas, knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways.”

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 magazineHowtoons, 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 stay tuned for Chapter Two, which will appear next Tuesday afternoon.