OLPC Leadership: Musicians or Instrument Makers?

   
   
   
   
   
olpc negroponte
Nicholas Negroponte of OLPC
It is no secret that the One Laptop Per Child's underlying and motivating educational philosophy is Constructionism, best captured by this Nicholas Negroponte quote:
"...for me, education doesn't mean school and it doesn't mean teaching. To me what education means is the passion for learning. If I could build a world where kids are more passionate about learning and have a bigger slice of their day to engage in it, that to me is the solution."
It seems to me, that this posture represents an educational tactic, not a comprehensive strategy. A passion for learning what, Professor Negroponte? Isn't the content of education at least as important as the form of engagement? Does education describe the process which results in higher scores on standardized tests and prepares students for the workforce, or is it about something more.

I am involved in a community that is exploring these issues, best surmised by the question "What Educates"? I recently heard the educational theorist Ernest Washington make the case that education is about teaching morality, but not in the traditional fundamentalist sense. He meant that at its core, education is about cultivating emotions and emotional awareness. Providing students with the emotional vocabulary so they can achieve greater self-awareness and self-control. This sentiment is echoed in Taylor Mali's poem "What Do Teachers Make?"


Seymour Papert of OLPC
Returning to the question of Constructionism, perhaps we should return to an early example of implementing a Constructionist pedagogy - Logo. Was Logo a success, or a failure? When I saw Seymour Papert talk last year at Teachers College I realized that:
"If logo has a failing, its that it does not provide the necessary scaffolding for teachers other than Papert to effectively teach with it. I have been exposed to logo in the past, but never really understood its appeal until Seymour started turtling."
In other words, in the hands of a master teacher, Logo came to life and sparked the passion that Negroponte conjures. But it is not evident that this inspiration is intrinsic to the technological environment. On the contrary, when I was taught Logo in elementary school it was introduced in a manner that failed to spark interest, never mind passion.

Clearly the educational goals of a particular community will be localized, and it is not the task of the OLPC to impose particular content goals. However, for the OLPC program to succeed countries need to be articulating visions, developing curricula, and training teachers to implement these plans. OLPC does not seem to be supportive of the role of Teachers in the education and this posture is very disconcerting.

The current OLPC Leadership is like the Stradivari family - an incredibly gifted group of instrument makers, but they are not world class musicians. They need to get their instrument into the hands of the world's best educators and media makers so they can begin to explore the affordances of this particular platform.

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12 Comments

Jonah,
"when I was taught Logo in elementary school it was introduced in a manner that failed to spark interest, never mind passion."

Could it be that your teacher has not let you actively discover Logo but tried to teach it to you (mostly passive on your side)?

If you discover something on your own you have a much more positive attitude to it. And you develop a feeling of ownership for it.

Nice maneuver, Roland. When the environment fails to excite, blame the teacher...

I'll see your meta-critique and raise you one - why wasn't it easy and obvious for my teacher to understand how to most effectively teach with Logo, and what are we doing to insure that the the curricular deployment of OLPC will unfold any differently? Are we teaching the teachers, and parents how it _should_ be introduced so as not to recreate this passive, banking model of education?

Also, where are all the adults who "discovered" Logo as children? I'll even take anecdotes, not studies of the impact of that technology. I still think it is fair and valuable to ask if Logo suceeded or failed, and in what respects, and what educational technologists can learn from those lessons.

But I think the central issue here is what do we want the next generation of kids to have a positive attitude and a deep feeling towards?

Even if we all accept that constructionism is a wonderful teaching strategy, it still just a precondion - what lessons should these children learn? Should they learn how to become more agressive, violent, competitive and selfish? Or, should they learn trust, community, friendship, and respect?

Constructionism might be able to teach either of these sets of values very effectively too. What I am claiming is that the tactic of educational engagement does not specify the educational goals. "Learning how to learn" is important, but perhaps "Learning why to learn" is even more important.

The Manhattan Project researchers surely had a passionate and positive attitude about their efforts - but passion and capacity for learning are not sufficient conditions to make the effort Good.

BTW - the link to "What Educates"? above is currently wrong - it should point to http://studyplace.org

/Jonah

At the center of Constructionism is the idea that children are motivated and talented learners. There is actually a great deal of scientific evidence to support this idea. A good summary is the best selling (and wonderfully well written) book, The Scientist in the Crib by three leading child development researchers.

http://www.amazon.com/Scientist-Crib-Early-Learning-Tells/dp/0688177883/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/105-9325847-3690814?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1180110781&sr=8-1

Of course, the question still remains as to how well olpc will actually work in facilitating self-directed learning, but the underlying idea is not at all empirically unsupported.

> At the center of Constructionism is the idea that children are
> motivated and talented learners. There is actually a great deal
> of scientific evidence to support this idea.

Yes, but is anyone saying something to contradict this motherhood
and apple-pie statement? No. Of course the question is whether
that talended learning is best exploited by unguided peers or
trained teachers.

"Of course the question is whether that talended learning is best exploited by unguided peers or trained teachers."

I think this opposition is stating things too much black and white.

I think the original opposition was between frontal "forced" teaching and explorative learning by choice.

We all know the Dickensianic images of a few dozens of children in rows, repeating some verbal rhyme untold times which was supposed to convey knowledge. The prototypical case being learning some holy scripture word by word by hearth in a classical language unknown to the children.

Althought this image is actually part of an ORAL culture interfacing with written sources, it was found in modern teaching. During the 20th century, it became abundantly clear due to teachers like Friedrich Fröbel, Maria Montesori, and Helen Parkhurst, that this type of hierarchical frontal teaching is inadequate. It proved to be impossible this way to teach the children the skills needed to succeed in higher education. In popular culture, this was described as "education kills creativity" or "the fun of learning".

But the roots of the evil go much deeper.

The classical, 19th century educative model was based on the assumption that children should be "tamed" for industry. The whole, 19th century, system was build on the assumption that a child should first and foremost learn to "behave" (ie, forced obedience). School was a civilizing force.

Although this crude model has long been abandoned, the practices are still with us because of poverty. That is because for anything beyond frontal, forced, teaching, you need time and resources.

That is what the OLPC tries to achieve: Give teachers and children the resources and time to get beyond the chores.

Making fun of "constructionism" doesn't help any children getting good education. Especially not if a lack of books and teachers forces them to just repeat what they are told as many times as possible.

You don't learn to read, if you have nothing worth reading. And you won't

Winter

I am puzzled as to why Winter states that OLPC will give students and teachers "time and resources to get beyond the chores".

As currently described, OLPC will give the students and teachers nothing but excellently-designed laptops with "clock-stopping technology", cameras, and mesh-network communications. This brings with it the huge question of what to do with it, beyond looking at porn, forming cliques through networking and taking each others' pictures.

Constructionism (as expressed by Negroponte) seems to provide no answer to this problem - it is as if the mere presence of the hardware will yield the desired result and no other. This is rightly described by our publisher as "the implementation miracle".

Once the nice man who came with the computers has told everyone how to turn them on and recharge the batteries, he will disappear. What do the students and teachers do then? A lot of people here will think that their work is finished at that point, but the need for much more work will become glaringly apparent at that time.

At present, I see very little evidence that OLPC has prepared for that set of problems.

I learned electronics starting at the age of 12 through a correspondence course that was given to me - a fabulous stroke of luck. I did not learn it by being given access to an electronics shop with my peers and no instructor. If that had been the method, I would not have dared to go further than my peers - we would all have learned a little bit about the tools and would have built the simplest circuit that would show results (a battery lighting a lamp, most likely), and we would have had a lot of fun goofing around and damaging tools.

Yes - we would have learned things, but they would mostly have been the wrong things. Thus we encounter the issue of values. Children will learn - they are designed and programmed to do so - but what they learn is for adults to govern. Trying to cut the adults out of the process is a way of sabotaging the process.

Who will suffer if OLPC is implemented in this partial way? I say that it will be countless students who will never have the opportunity to use the technology with appropriate guidance. This will be because the "implementation miracles" won't happen and will be judged failures, and funding will be cut off from any remotely similar proposal.

Lee, according to the Trojan horse tactics that OLPC officials admitted to apply the constructivistic learning without teachers outside schools is only a temporary intermediate stage. The intention is that the method infiltrates schools rather soon. And that teachers will see themselves forced to use it in class. How the teachers are trained to do that and how their countries pay for that training remains unclear. This is the implementation miracle of the Trojan horse tactics.

Lee,
"As currently described, OLPC will give the students and teachers nothing but excellently-designed laptops with "clock-stopping technology", cameras, and mesh-network communications."

That's not quite true, is it. XO machine will come with a rather complete set of general software plus educational software, games and some content.

"I learned electronics starting at the age of 12 through a correspondence course that was given to me - a fabulous stroke of luck"

See how much of that info (eg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diodes ) you would , as kids will with their Wikipedia included on XO by default, find these days...and that's before you start using info/courses on the internet...

Delphi,
I looked at the wikipedia "diodes" page and it does not compare to the structured learning materials I had in the DeVry Technical Institute correspondence course on radio and TV repair.

Rather than simply present a mass of information on diodes - thermionic, semiconductor, etc., along with the Shockley equations, the course I studied explained the place where the diode would function within the technology needed for radio, then filled it.

That's the difference between reference and instructional material. The wikipedia information is quite complete, but the reader doesn't know what matters more than other things. This makes it intimidating to young students.

I should also point out that I grew up with an older brother (now a renowned professor) who kept trying to teach me the material he was learning three years ahead of me. It was hopeless - the experience sensitized me to how important it is to match the teaching to the student.

Even with the correspondence course, I wish that I had had a skilled mentor with which to discuss the material I was learning.

I have seen some statements claiming that since MIT makes their course material available (in English) on the web that all kids with XO laptops can therefore gain the equivalent of an MIT education. I'm sorry, the problem is not nearly so neatly solved.

Lee wrote:
"I am puzzled as to why Winter states that OLPC will give students and teachers "time and resources to get beyond the chores"."

Two ways:
http://www.olpcnews.com/use_cases/education/olpc_effective_violin.html

1 Automating administration and more efficient communications between schools, teachers, and children due to email, IM, discussion boards, web-sites, VoIP. This saves time that can be spend on teaching.

This has happened in the west. (High-)Schools can make flexible teaching plans because students can get the class hours from the web-page. Assignments and tests can be handed in by email/IM and so on.

2 If half the students can master a subject on their own, the teacher has more time to help the other half.

The XO is NOT intended for correspondence courses. This is a straw man argument. It is there to help students and teachers to make more efficient use of their time.

And anyone lambasting current on-line courses as an argument against the OLPC is just demonstrating his/her complete ignorance on modern education. This is NOT 1990 anymore.

Please, if you can, go talk to a high school student or visit a modern high school in a developed country.

I did talk to high school students, and the mere suggestion that you could finish a Western high school without a computer or the internet was considered evidence of complete out-of-this-world ignorance.

All modern teaching methods assume student have computers and internet.

Winter

Winter, while I'd agree with your assessment about high school requiring a computer and the Internet, the XO will not be used by high schoolers, but by primary / elementary students. This takes us to another debate, After the XO, what comes?

Rob Winter, you touched a topic that interests me:

"It is there to help students and teachers to make more efficient use of their time."

I understand your sentence is in the context of a modern version of the traditional lecturing style (not constructionism) where computers allow timesavings.

1) In the context of constructionism where the students should explore, experiment and express which promises to be a more effective way of learning with computers I wonder whether this is also more time efficient.

1a) Doesn't this exploration, experimenting and expression take more time?

1b) Is it possible to do all the learning in constructionism style within the given time?

1c)Or do you have to limit exploration to a few important themes and do the rest with traditional lecturing style for time reasons?

1d) Or would it even be worth to throw less important parts of the curriculum over board for the sake of having enough time to learn purely in constructionism style?

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