Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Sony Walkman keeps you walking"

First a metaphorical model:

I was considering using a still image from the Wizard of Oz for an image of someone behind the curtain running the show, but I really wanted to push the idea of a puppet master. You see, what my problem is with constructionism is that there is this gap. Or maybe it's a distance thing. Either way every time I read about a constructionist implementation there is always a high degree of opacity between teachers, students, and researchers.

Let's go into the readings a little bit for examples. So in this Bers et. al. article about using robotics with children aged 3 and 4. We see Student-Teachers creating robotic tools that are supposed to help the children learn. In one group of 3-year-old's the student-teacher had the children placing a Lego Mindstorm brick, shaped like a heart, which triggered the puppet to move through phases. This taught metamorphosis.
In the next example discussing the life cycle a student-teacher created a rotating disc with a frame that clearly emphasized one of the stills in the cycle. From here students would place these chronologically on a line.
Yes, students learn and are engaged.

But they don't make the connection to robotics, nor are robotics the best use or tool. I have a hard time buying that robotics made a big difference in the student's learning. For all they know these items were pre-existing tools. They do not know that their student-teachers created this curriculum and lesson. They are ignorant of the 'man behind the curtain' pulling the strings and organizing this unit. It seems like this proposed methodology capitalizes on gimmickry. If this seems like an unfair criticism we'll look at another example.

Montemayor et. al. created these neat StoryRooms. They use physical space and encourage students to explore the room's items and create stories using them. Some items were computerized, others not, like chairs and stuffed animals. And students create stories like so:

"“Mr. Mouse, do you know a way back to my house?” Mr.
Mouse replied, “I do not know where your house is. Maybe
you should ask Mr. Koala.” Irene finds and goes up to Mr.
Koala. She sees a green hand next to it. So she squeezes it
and asks, “Mr. Koala, do you know the way to my home?”
(A green light placed next to a snake lights up.) Mr. Koala
said, “I do not know where your house is. Maybe you should
ask Mr. Snake.” Irene follows the green light and sees Mr.
Snake. She asks the same question. Finally, Mr. Snake says,
“Sure, I know just the way. Come, follow me back to your

And I thought of this great De la Soul song called 'Tread Water':

because its practically the same as the student's story.

The findings result that students can contribute more to a story, do a little physical programming, and be more more of an attentive audience than previously thought. Cool.

But I still am not sold that the students knew they were programming. Nor do I think the students had that intention, rather they were playing within a story. Again it feels like the researchers created this unit, with an opacity, and call it learning.

I think the students genuinely learn. I don't think it's the best way to teach. You need to have the right tool for the job. And it must be used in the most appropriate way, otherwise it will be a waste of time and resources, ranging from cost to education.


  1. Hi Jeffrey,

    Well stated.. They deserve that! :P

    The author(s) claimed that children do not have the chance author stories.. well, children DO author and tell imagined stories all the time, often using physical objects from their surroundings to create scenarios.
    I found this example of technology standing much into the way of what children naturally do rather than facilitating an activity that otherwise would be difficult.

  2. Well ... yes, the Physical Programming article uncovers this separation between researchers and teachers. I have to be honest though, I found the idea of Physical Programming very interesting. I don't know if it will eventually work for children, but it can be a perfect way to introduce programming to young adults(maybe not with the wand). The problem is that the article does not explain how Physical Programming is positive for the classroom. There was no class discussion session later to talk about how they felt when recreating the story, there was no collaborative work, etc.

    Sadly, they are also vague about the programming skills developed by the children, and that affects the credibility of the article. For me the StoryRoom and StoryKit were perfect to introduce children to give "instructions" to objects, following a certain order (like in an algorithm). If that had been part of the initial goals of the experiment, I think we could say with confidence that children achieved that goal, even if they did not perceive it as programming yet.

  3. Hey Jeff,
    I like your critical eye on all of this gung ho technology stuff. Sometimes you just need to pour cold water on people and tell them to think things through a little more.

    On the other hand, I kept looking at this from the standpoint of the teachers. What was the long-term effect of working out how to use a particular technology for teaching? What did they learn from it? Maybe some of them came to the same conclusion that a number of people came to, that you could have done all of this without the technology. But did it help to foster a disposition toward using technology in teaching? Did it give those teachers confidence that they could tackle other technologies when they needed or wanted to? Learning, like design, is an iterative process. The teachers may have learned a lot to take with them about thinking outside of the box (and it would have been nice if we knew something about what happened later). Also, doing something with technology that doesn't really work all that well (failure) should inform you the next time. It should also help teachers develop some horse sense about where technology adds value and where it just adds layers of opacity.