A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.
A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.
In an era when the quality and nature of American secondary school education are subjects of vigorous debate, it is time to rethink our curricula. Together, we lead eight Washington-area independent schools, and we have been meeting regularly over the past several years to discuss research and compare experiences.
While each of us offers a unique academic program grounded in our historical missions and educational philosophies, we have jointly come to recognize the diminished utility of Advanced Placement courses. Consequently, collectively we agree that we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.
When introduced in the early 1950s, the rationale for the AP program was to offer particularly ambitious students an opportunity to pursue and receive credit for college-level work, allowing them to graduate from college early. Yet today, few college students graduate in less than four years. At the same time, almost 40 percent of high school students enroll in AP courses, meaning it is no longer true that only a few, exceptional students take them.
As a result, AP courses on high school transcripts are of diminished significance to college admissions officers. Further, we’ve conducted our own survey of almost 150 college and university admissions officers and have been assured that the absence of the AP designation will have no adverse impact on our students. The real question for colleges is whether an applicant has taken a high school’s most demanding courses; the AP designation itself is irrelevant.
Naturally, colleges and universities want the most capable and hard-working students. Therefore, in the belief that failing to take an AP course may hurt their college prospects, students reluctantly pass up more interesting, more engaging and potentially more intellectually transformative and rewarding courses. Because these tests loom so large for students, faculty often feel pressed to sacrifice in-depth inquiries to cover all of the material likely to be included on the test.
But the truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.
Theories of education have changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the ways we teach and test must reflect these changes. Rote memorization is giving way to learning that is more collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary — with an increased focus on problem-solving. We also integrate and connect coursework to real-world issues and provide students with more opportunities to engage in original research and deep analysis.
Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented more in these directions will not only better prepare our students for their futures but also will result in programs that are more engaging both for students and faculty. Moreover, this approach will encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning.
This change does not signify any effort to diminish the academic rigor for which our schools are known. To the contrary, we believe that by capitalizing on the talents of our superb teachers and resources, students will be offered more stimulating courses that explore subjects in greater depth, enhancing the strength of our programs.
We are far from the first independent schools to eliminate the AP designation. Many excellent boarding and day schools around the country have embraced this change and seen students thrive and teachers flourish without any negative impact on college placement. What is unusual about our decision is that we came to this conclusion together and are announcing it jointly. We hope that by adding our collective voice to the conversation, we will make it easier for other schools considering a similar change to follow the same path.
As schools devoted to nurturing students’ potential, fostering their talents and preparing them to lead productive lives, we believe the flexibility we will gain from developing our own courses will better prepare our students for college and their professional futures. In this time of unprecedented challenges, we owe our students and the world they will enter nothing less.
Russell Shaw, head of Georgetown Day School
Susanna Jones, head of Holton-Arms School
Jim Neill, headmaster of Landon School
Marjo Talbott, head of Maret School
Kathleen Jamieson, head of National Cathedral School
John Kowalik, head of Potomac School
Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans School
Bryan Garman, head of Sidwell Friends School
If you’re looking to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), show them the ways that popular media uses — and misuses — the concepts you teach daily. Used as part of a lesson, clips from movies can reinforce topics, spark discussion, and promote new perspectives.
There’s still a great need to introduce kids, and especially girls, to STEM fields like neurobiology, nanotechnology, and civil engineering. Whether it’s a short clip from a Hollywood film to reinforce the concept of gravity or a feature-length documentary that highlights the work of engineers, incorporating movies into your lessons can help kids connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the world at large. And even after the credits roll, you can extend the learning: Create a model, start a debate, or begin a community project that the film — and your teaching — inspires.
Here are 10 film picks that showcase essential STEM skills for school, home, the workplace, and beyond.
This hilarious save-the-world tale appeals to the builder in all of us; creative engineering solutions abound as the heroes embark on their block-building journey.
Teacher tips: Have students identify the engineering design process at work in the movie. Bring some Lego bricks into the classroom (or use Minecraft) and have students develop solutions to common problems, creating prototypes, testing designs, and iterating on their own designs. Students can document their findings and share the highs and lows of the creative process.
Discussion questions: Which of the movie’s creations was your favorite, and why? How might real-life engineers change the design process when they have to make quick decisions? How do the characters in the film demonstrate teamwork, and why is this important for engineers?
In this Disney adaptation of a comic with the same name, a 14-year-old genius invents special microbots to join his brother’s university robotics program. After tragedy ensues, a group of heroes unites and uses their strengths in chemistry and engineering to overtake a crafty villain.
Teacher tips: Try some of the experiments provided by the film’s producers. From there, ask students to choose a problem in their school or community and work together in teams to brainstorm, design, and build solutions using their own unique talents.
Discussion questions: How can engineering solutions and inventions help — and sometimes hurt — humankind? What skills do you have that might help a team overcome an obstacle? Which events or traits fuel each character’s creativity in the movie? Is creativity always positive?
This documentary highlights engineers from various backgrounds — many of whom are women — and the projects they’re designing, from earthquake-proof structures to footbridges in developing countries.
Teacher tips: Use the powerful stories about engineering and robotics clubs in schools to inspire your students to join (or create) their own. Have students research other engineering projects from around the world that are currently in the works, and discuss what kind of global impact they might have. Also be sure to check out the film’s education guide.
Discussion questions: How does engineering affect our everyday lives? How might engineers adapt as technology becomes more prevalent? Why do you think the movie highlights so many women engineers? Why is this type of diversity important?
This inspiring true story of African American women at NASA in the 1950s and ’60s helps shine a light on the need for humans even as technology continues to automate.
Teacher tips: Build off the film’s education guide: Have students construct and solve their own mathematical equations to describe the orbits of planets, or use computer simulations to model Newton’s second law of motion. Talk about how technology makes these calculations easier.
Discussion questions: What are the positive and negative implications of technology taking over roles humans once held? What role did gender play in STEM fields in the 1950s and ’60s? How much have those roles changed today?
An underdog tale, this documentary tells the story of a robotics team from a lower-income high school that took on university teams — including MIT — in an underwater robotics competition.
Teacher tips: Introduce students to robots they can build and code like Sphero, littleBits Invent, and Cue. Have students work in teams to focus on the design process and complete challenges. And while you’re at it, why not start or promote a robotics club at your school?
Discussion questions: What is it about the kids on this team that made them able to overcome such huge obstacles? What makes underwater robotics such a challenging problem to tackle? Besides through robotics clubs, what are some other ways to do STEM activities outside the classroom?
A classic and powerful take on the story of the doomed NASA spacecraft, this film highlights the technical issues astronauts faced (along with some of the do-it-yourself solutions they inspired) to land Apollo 13 on the moon.
Teacher tips: Use the rocket launch and reentry scenes to model physics concepts. Have students build or code their own rockets and create journals to document the kinds of small adjustments and iterations needed to create a successful launch. Tip: Pairs well with a game like Kerbal Space Program.
Discussion questions: How has technology changed since the 1960s? Where should NASA focus its efforts in space exploration today? What does the film say about the role of engineers and their ability to use common items to fix highly technical problems?
While some of the film’s ideas veer into science fiction, there’s enough real science in this edge-of-your-seat thriller to make the heroes’ search for habitable planets worth your time.
Teacher tips: After taking a look at the educator’s guide and some TED-Ed lessons, have students talk about misconceptions and analyze the accuracy of some of the film’s scientific questions. Students can hold a debate around what’s a fact, what may be possible, and what’s simply unattainable.
Discussion questions: What technological issues are holding humans back from interstellar travel? If you were building your own robot companion for space travel, what qualities would you deem most important? What are some ways viewers can separate fact from fantasy in science fiction movies?
This sci-fi space thriller follows an astronaut who’s stuck on Mars and must problem-solve his way to safety using real scientific principles.
Teacher tips: Let students know it’s a movie about risk-taking and creativity and that, although the story is fictional, it’s rooted in scientific fact. Have students take a look at some of the main character’s creations in the movie: a sextant for navigation, his potato farm, or the water he makes from rocket fuel. Next, design a lesson where students are given a limited set of tools, a goal, and some constraints, then see what sort of innovative DIY projects they can launch.
Discussion questions: What is the hexadecimal system, and why is language so important in science and math? How important was it for the film’s main character to keep a log? Why do we not yet have the technology to go to Mars?
Want to show students that they have the talent and ability to make a difference? Then check out this documentary that follows 10 high school students who design and build a new farmer’s market for their rural community.
Teacher tips: Kids will be inspired not only by the students’ abilities but by their actions. Harness that sentiment to get kids out into their own communities. Have your students interview neighbors, collect data, and embark on a cross-curricular project-based learning assignment to solve an issue. Teach your students the necessary skills to build something, and then set them free to create.
Discussion questions: Which engineering processes did you notice throughout the movie? Were some more successful than others? What obstacles might you face if you were to promote a change at your school?
Cryptologists and mathematicians are front and center in this historical drama about the British government’s attempt to crack the German Enigma code during WWII.
Teacher tips: There’s a lack of Hollywood movies that incorporate math in meaningful ways. Take advantage of kids’ interest in this movie to host a code-breaking challenge event. Or, use cryptograms as an introduction to a matrix unit. If you provide Genius Hour time, let students dig in and explore a topic of their interest. You could also have kids research other examples where STEM skills have helped shape significant historical events.
Discussion questions: Would computers today be able to pass Turing’s test to determine intelligence? Why do we typically see more movies and stories about biologists or engineers instead of mathematicians?
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to class Wednesday morning two weeks and moral centuries after a tragic mass shooting ended the lives of 17 classmates and teachers. Sen. Marco Rubio marked their return by scolding them for being “infected” with “arrogance” and “boasting.” The Florida legislature marked their return by enacting a $67 million program to arm school staff, including teachers, over the objections of students and parents. Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill opted to welcome them back by ignoring their wishes on gun control, which might lead a cynic to believe that nothing has changed in America after yet another horrifying cycle of child murder and legislative apathy.
But that is incorrect. Consumers and businesses are stepping in where the government has cowered. Boycotts may not influence lawmakers, but they certainly seem to be changing the game in the business world. And the students of Parkland, Florida, unbothered by the games played by legislators and lobbyists, are still planning a massive march on Washington. These teens have—by most objective measures—used social media to change the conversation around guns and gun control in America.
Now it’s time for them to change the conversation around education in America, and not just as it relates to guns in the classroom. The effectiveness of these poised, articulate, well-informed, and seemingly preternaturally mature student leaders of Stoneman Douglas has been vaguely attributed to very specific personalities and talents. Indeed, their words and actions have been so staggeringly powerful, they ended up fueling laughable claims about crisis actors, coaching, and fat checks from George Soros. But there is a more fundamental lesson to be learned in the events of this tragedy: These kids aren’t freaks of nature. Their eloquence and poise also represent the absolute vindication of the extracurricular education they receive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.
Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one.
The student leaders of the #NeverAgain revolt were also, in large part, theater kids who had benefited from the school’s exceptional drama program. Coincidentally, some of these students had been preparing to perform Spring Awakening, a rock musical from 2006. As the New Yorker describes it in an essay about the rise of the drama kids, that musical tackles the question of “what happens when neglectful adults fail to make the world safe or comprehensible for teen-agers, and the onus that neglect puts on kids to beat their own path forward.” Weird.
The student leaders at Stoneman Douglas High School have also included, again, not by happenstance, young journalists, who’d worked at the school paper, the Eagle Eye, with the supervision of talented staff. One of the extraordinary components of the story was the revelation that David Hogg, student news director for the school’s broadcast journalism program, WMSD-TV, was interviewing his own classmates as they hid in a closet during the shooting, and that these young people had the wherewithal to record and write about the events as they unfolded. As Christy Ma, the paper’s staff editor, later explained, “We tried to have as many pictures as possible to display the raw emotion that was in the classroom. We were working really hard so that we could show the world what was going on and why we need change.”
Mary Beth Tinker actually visited the school in 2013 to talk to the students about her role in Tinker v. Des Moines, the seminal Supreme Court case around student speech and protest. As she described it to me, the school’s commitment to student speech and journalism had been long in evidence, even before these particular students were activated by this month’s horrific events. Any school committed to bringing in a student activist from the Vietnam era to talk about protest and freedom is a school more likely than not to be educating activists and passionate students.
To be sure, the story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students is a story about the benefits of being a relatively wealthy school district at a moment in which public education is being vivisected without remorse or mercy. But unless you’re drinking the strongest form of Kool-Aid, there is simply no way to construct a conspiracy theory around the fact that students who were being painstakingly taught about drama, media, free speech, political activism, and forensics became the epicenter of the school-violence crisis and handled it creditably. The more likely explanation is that extracurricular education—one that focuses on skills beyond standardized testing and rankings—creates passionate citizens who are spring-loaded for citizenship.
Perhaps instead of putting more money into putting more guns into our classrooms, we should think about putting more money into the programs that foster political engagement and skills. In Sen. Rubio’s parlance, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was fostering arrogance. To the rest of the world, it was building adults.
MELBOURNE, Australia — At Lumineer Academy, a newly opened primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades.
Instead, there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”
If the school — furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs — sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s because it is.
That entrepreneur is Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the “most influential women in technology” and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.
Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.
“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Ms. Wu. “What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed.”
In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.
In recent years, schools and education programs have been founded by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.
Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by the former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising $175 million from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, and charging tuition fees of around $28,000.
Ms. Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she says her school’s model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.
Private education is much more common in Australia than in the United States. About a third of Australian children attend private schools — nearly three times the rate of American children — meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a nonprofit.
Ms. Wu says that she and her co-founders, Sophie Fenton and Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education.
Ms. Fenton won Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education — the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.
Though similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms. Wu’s Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.
“She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time,” said Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at Airbnb. “Almost any problem space — no matter how different it is from the last — she seems to be able to tackle.”
Lumineer Academy opened in January in a former customs house in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 students enrolled and tuition costs around 10,000 Australian dollars, or $8,000.
Unlike most Australian private schools, students at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, students are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalog.)
Classrooms in the school have been rebranded “studios.” There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.
The Luminaria model claims to balance hard S.T.E.M. subjects, like computer programing, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms. Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.
Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 percent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums.
“When I saw the job advertised, I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ ” said Kim Staples, a 31-year-old teacher. “I was so frustrated in other systems, because they’re quite prescriptive.”
Ms. Staples said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn’t joined Ms. Wu’s school.
“I felt like I was too restricted,” she said. “I couldn’t give children the type of learning experiences that I knew was best for them.”
There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, 8- and 9-year-olds worked on a project about socializing. The students outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted straight from a start-up’s business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.
Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.
“I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,” said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. “In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.”
Glenn Savage, an Australian education policy expert, said that it was difficult to see how the school’s lofty goals could fit within Australia’s “very structured” education system.
“It’s important that parents don’t work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won’t be doing anything like students in other schools — because that’s just not the case,” he said.
The students had created a “pitch deck” — tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation — aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked). In a nearby “creator space,” students were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers’ market by the end of the school year.
One student, Ines Morgan, 8, said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.
“Our hypothesis was, ‘What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?’ ” she explained. “They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again.”
The school’s website promises to remove the “stress and anxiety” students encounter at other schools.
But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school — where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.
Ines, the 8-year-old ant colony disrupter, said she had seen “a little bit of bullying” but that it was dealt with as a collective.
When asked how the situation was resolved, another student, Noah Helu, 8, said, “Well, it’s like what Ines learned about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying.”
What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?
“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.
“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.
They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.
Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.
Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:
The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:
And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:
But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.
The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”
Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)
McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.
The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.
Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.
Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)
“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.
“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.
But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.
Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.
For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.
His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?
We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.
EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?
MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.
EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?
RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.
EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?
RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.
Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.
EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?
RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.
We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.
EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?
RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”
They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.
EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?
RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.
That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.
EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?
RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.
I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.
Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.