Where Have all the Powerful Ideas Gone?

For a few days last week, the world’s biggest edtech event, ISTE in San Antonio, made me confront some harsh realities.

Late on the third day, as I sat listening to our colleague Gary Stager’s ISTE session on the 50th anniversary of Logo, I was reminded of just how painfully incremental our adoption of computers in schools has been.  I mean, half a century is a long time, far too long a time for us to still be waiting to see what computers can make possible for learners.

Nineteen sixty-seven might have been the year of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, but more significantly, it was also the year educational computing as we know it was born.  It was the year that Alan Kay gave birth to the concept of a ‘laptop’ computer for kids, which he sketched on a flight back to the US after working with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and some young students.  And, importantly, it was the year that Papert and others released the first version of  a computer language for kids, which they called Logo.

But Kay wasn’t simply thinking of his ‘laptop’ as a new medium of expression, or way of doing things more efficiently. Rather he saw it as a place where young people could create and explore new, powerful ideas. Where they could do things that were simply not previously possible, at levels of complexity never before imaginable. As an instrument whose music is ideas. Oh, how I longed to hear more of that music in San Antonio.

My visit to the world’s largest edtech event challenges me to explain our tardiness, because a review of the breakout session summaries, and in particular, a wander through the exhibit hall, highlighted just how much work is yet to be done.

That’s not to say there aren’t some extraordinary people doing extraordinary things in our schools. There are, but I’m talking about the educators and educational leaders wh0 are still timid and tentative about the use of computers in their schools. I’m talking about the thousands of trivial ‘apps’ that now dominate so many classrooms. I’m talking about the low bar ideas that are all about sustaining existing practice. And I’m talking about the dumbing down of every idea so that it’s ‘simple’ and easy’, as if teachers are not capable of rigor or higher-order thinking. Note to the trade… they are.

I mean STEM and all of its relatives, robotics, Maker, coding are now in full flight, and there were some excellent resources on show at the conference. But again, far too many were providing scripts for teachers and instructions for students, or had dumbed down the coding required so that it more closely resembled a draughts set, rather than any real programming. Our kids, and our teachers are capable of more than that.

Large poster on the vendor floor: “Less cheating. More teaching.”

 Seriously, what more can you say about that?

Subtext: Computers are a tool for teachers, rather than providing agency to kids, who obviously can’t be trusted.

So my post-ISTE reflection suggests we’re trapped in a low-bar loop. Yes we are finally starting to reach a critical mass in terms of computer density in our schools. Millions of kids now have a computer in school, but their use and the power of the “device” they use is not about exploring powerful ideas, but rather about sustaining the status quo. If we filter them, lock them down, limit their capacity and make them “simple” and ‘ and “easy” to use then they fit into the “regularities” of school.

The low-bar loop is then completed when critics reasonably observe that not much has changed. That for all the money that has been spent, there is little ‘evidence’ of benefit. And sadly, for the most part, they are right, because above all, it’s about maintaining existing practice-not disrupting anything.

Poster on the vendor floor: “Our software protects the classroom, your syllabus and lesson plans by filtering for any unwanted activity. It prevents the production of dangerous or unwanted items, lowers school costs”

And what about the learning?

Subtext: Computers are harmful and should be locked down and told to behave.

So these ‘regularities’ of school, the legacy assessment practices, the artificial subject barriers, the rigid scheduling are a dead weight to developing powerful ideas which are now possible for every child who is ubiquitously connected to our abundant world. As Seymour Sarason describes them:

The “regularities” of that culture—patterns, rules, and procedures that are mostly unseen and assumed—tend to undermine the basic purposes of educating our youth. These regularities are what might be called “ways of doing business in school.”

These regularities are not immutable “laws of nature,” nor are they the result of careful assessment of the efficacies of practice. They persist because they go unexamined and unchallenged (“But we’ve always done it that way!”). Only when we uncover such regularities can we decide whether they serve our purposes as educators.

So in the midst of the euphoria of early computers in schools, these regularities were often just ignored. Those teachers who were bold enough to be using computers at that time were bold enough to not play by the regularities and their associated rules, and powerful ideas were allowed to develop. Those were days when I worked with nine year olds who were programming games and robotics in ways that kids almost twice their age seem to struggle with today.

Poster on the vendor floor: “Helping teachers meet the needs of every student: Deliver the perfect lesson to every student …watch your students grow!’ rocketship icon (sic)

Obviously not too familiar with the concept of student agency.

Subtext: Computer as a lesson delivery machine.

We’re circling the wagons, not moving head. At one level it is inertia and prejudice, but at another, the possibilities are simply trapped by what Sarason’s ‘regularities’ of school.

If you want to explore big ideas, you can’t get serious in a fifty-minute lesson, and it’s even harder to compartmentalize those ideas in a subject just because it fits the school schedule. Powerful learning is about discovery, about being curious, about being inquisitive. We learn through experiences that allow us to construct knowledge and build a deeper understanding of ideas and concepts that we are then able to apply in new contexts.

And for that to happen we need to start with a a pedagogical shift from delivery to inquiry. For far too long the pedagogical emperor has had no clothes, and it’s about time we told him he’s naked. Sure he might have a computer, but if he doesn’t seriously commit to changing practice, he might as well not bother buying any clothes.

It’s funny how often people talk about pedagogical shifts, and just how little you see.

After fifty years surely it’s time we took the chains off the opportunities, unleashed the possibilities and enabled teachers and students to pursue learning in its most powerful modern form.

But to do this we need to address the influence of these regularities that underpin traditional school culture. We need schools that are designed around flexibility, rather than rigidity; that are built around creativity and discovery, not routinization and efficiency. It’s about describing a place where learning knows no boundaries, which is what modern contexts demand.

Why should computers in schools be confined to computing the sum of the squares of the first twenty odd numbers, and similar so-called problem solving uses? Why not use them to produce something? There is no better reason than the intellectual timidity of the computers-in-education community which seems remarkably reluctant to use their computers for any purpose that fails to look very much like something that has been taught in schools for the past centuries.

Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon (1971)

Forty-six years later, they were right.

Image Credit: Alamy with permission.

6 thoughts on “Where Have all the Powerful Ideas Gone?”

  1. Martin

    To paraphrase William Gibson: “the powerful ideas are there, they’re just not evenly distributed”.

    I share your frustration that the powerful ideas in many schools are so sparse as to disappear into the background of tedium.

    I think your biggest powerful idea is that of student agency. Throw away half the curriculum, halt the race (curriculum, from Latin: ‘course, racing chariot’, from currere ‘to run’.) and allow learning.

    Probably the biggest impediment aside from a rigid and confining curriculum is the rigidity and confining nature of the bus timetables.

    Having said this, keep up the good work, fight the good fight.

    9 out of 10 😉

    1. Bruce Dixon

      I appreciate the feedback Martin. For a quick moment there I thought you were suggesting we learn Latin again :)….. overall I am very optimistic that there are serious winds of change where we are now seeing a growing movement of schools that are taking off the shackles of those ‘regularities’…or as Papert and Cuban described them ‘grammar of school’…and by that they are providing teachers and students with the conditions they need to develop and explore powerful ideas.

  2. Louka P

    Great article Bruce,

    I remember my ISTE visit in 2014 well, both the inspiring parts and the underwhelming ones also.

    I think the challenge you identify is often borne from a lack of imagination, perceived lack of time and significant risk-aversion. After all, the mass education model worked for a long time; it re-cultured society to train billions of factory workers, both cognitive and non-cognitive. Now that model is well and truly obsolete but the challenge is shifting to transformation rather than incremental improvement within an old model obsessed by the shadow of goal posts long since moved. Then, of course, there are the interests (both financial and institutional) of those who benefit most from the current paradigm, and I certainly don’t think it is young people. I often wonder how the captive audience we have in schools has impacted the generally glacial change in education.

    I agree that the way forward is to enable professional efficacy of student and teachers. To personalise, not prescribe, and ultimately get out of the way to support students to do deep, meaningful, authentic work. In my view, this comes down to equipping teachers to create environment for young people to thrive, developing their enterprise skills, their meaningful knowledge and their dispositions as the new currency that the world already seeks.

    Thankfully, there are brilliant teachers and leaders out there who somehow delivery powerful learning every day and we should both applaud and appreciate their work. Beyond that though, we should ask ‘how’ they did it. How did they move from idea to implementation and what it is we can learn from each other. Sadly, it’s often in spite of the systems, testing, corporatised mass products, time pressures or dated, yet well intentioned, parent expectations that meaningful change occurs. What if we really gave kids the space and structures to drive their learning? Great teachers and leaders do this already and we should scale up the principles they use knowing that the methods may well look different in different communities and contexts. I think that’d spell the end of closed-book testing or standardised surface level content delivery, and when that happens we’ll see learning that truly knows no bounds.

    ¡Viva la revolución educativa!

    1. Bruce Dixon

      Appreciate your comment Louka. You make some excellent observations. Ironically your closing phrase is one many often debate. Do we need a ‘revolution’ to bring about the change we seek for our young people?
      I think the good news is that both Will and I can feel the ‘earth moving’. For the first time in my (very) long career, I can sense there is a genuine momentum across many countries to drive for this change in our schools. I’m pleased that the work we are putting into Change School is a small part of that, and above all it is giving a voice and community to school leaders everywhere who in the past have been isolated and lacking the collegial support necessary to make any change sustainable.

    2. John Faig

      Lack of imagination, a perceived lack of time (not found in any other industry) and significant risk-aversion. You hit the nail on the head with reasons why there are uninspiring and underwhelming EdTech products. Thinking back on my own experiences, I believe that EdTech product companies have fallen into the low-bar trap. They don’t want to risk alienating teachers, but doing so has produced lackluster products.

  3. Greg

    “…low bar ideas that are all about sustaining existing practice.”

    Bruce, I don’t think you could have said it any better. Spot on. (By the way.. it’s not just education where we see this.)

    I think the biggest problem we face is that “school” is a prisoner of the college admissions process and moreover, the college educational model (College could benefit from your work as much or more than anyone else). High school has turned into an apprenticeship for college. In order to see disruptive change, Colleges must be part of the discussion.

    Ultimately Bruce…. we are asking a social institution that does not teach, practice, or value change to do just that.

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