OLPC as Constructivist Education Reform

   
   
   
   
   

Greg Smith raised several important points in his "Optimal XO Application Development Model Process" post.

We need to engage with the schools of the OLPC target countries (eventually all countries are targets, but we have to start somewhere) about the collaborative discovery model of education, which we call Constructivism.

olpc nigeria
Start in Nigerian schools?

Colonial Education Systems

This means opening a discussion with teachers, students, administrators, families, prospective employers--well, everybody, actually. The problem that we face is that almost every education system in the world was created by a colonial power, not to encourage innovation and problem-solving, but to keep the population in order while their country was pillaged.

The point was to create a compliant bureaucracy, military, justice system, and so forth, which would deal with the rest of the population on behalf of the colonial masters. Even at home in the seats of empire, the better sort of education was directed at producing bureaucrats and other functionaries for the home country and the colonies, military officers, and so on, while the lower forms of education were aimed at producing factory workers and shop clerks, not thinkers and innovators.

Nobody minded if the system also produced mathematicians, scientists, and technologists, as long as they confined themselves to their own fields and didn't try to think about the bigger picture. Those who did were marginalized as radicals, even Communists (which they often were. Communism combined a fine and quite appropriate sense of moral outrage for recruitment purposes with insane theories of politics and economics that most members took on faith).

The most innovative cultures in history, such as Athens and Venice, were slave-owning or aristocratic. We can learn from them, but we can't copy them. The US education system has been described thus: "If it had been imposed by a foreign power, it would have been considered an act of war." So in every case we have an education system not suitable for free peoples.

The OLPC Promise

We don't even know what would be suitable for free peoples. Not for lack of trying, but because those who have investigated the issues have been effectively marginalized and largely go unheard. Until now.

Now their work is embodied in the OLPC XO-1 laptop. Children won't need to hear the theory when they have the thing itself in their hot little hands.

mind
Free your child's mind!

Hmm, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we don't need to open a discussion after all. Children of the world, listen to your uncle. (The rest of you, move along now. Nothing to see.)

Careful how you go with the truth under your coat. Pass it on.

More Constructivism on OLPC News

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16 Comments

Interesting post. However, since the people who will be making the decision whether or not to buy the XO (government bureaucrats) were educated under and continue to benefit from the 'colonial system', why would they spend a massive amount of money to change that system?

Wouldn't the introduction of a Constructivism education represent a threat to their continued power? In America the government wouldn't spend a trivial amount of money to change the system.

This post by Mr. Cherlin is a perfect example of the absurd talk that has so negatively impacted the OLPC Project.

Telling people to just handing out a computer to kids will solve all their educational woes - real or imagined - is something that very few goverments will buy into.

It takes more than a bunch of frivolous assumptions ("almost every education system in the world was created by a colonial power") to make a credible case that the XO - or the Classmate or Eeee, for that matter - will have a meaningful impact on a child's education.

The good news is that, fortunately, nobody is believing the fake claims. The OLPC Project will have a chance the day it becomes an education project. So far, it is all about the hardware, with education taking a distant back seat.

Pilot Projects, anyone?

> The OLPC Promise

Err, I missed the actual promise - a falsifiable prediction. Where is it?

I was educated in the 60's in the standard recitation method used in the day. No thought was given to learning, only remembering. School was boring. I remembered my times tables. I remembered my spelling. We read books and in some cases the teacher would spend the 45 minutes class time reading a chapter from a book.

We had Art and Craft, where would make things from cardboard and pipe cleaners. Cellophane (that colored plastic sometimes used to wrap gifts) was used extensively for its color advantages.

Geography showed us pictures and facts about a World we'd never seen. People we'd never spoken to. Mountains we had never climbed.

Once we graduated to high school things got more interesting. The problem was we had no skills. We didn't know how to search for facts. We didn't know how to assemble a logical progression of ideas into paragraphs and argue a point of view. Much that we were taught in earlier years at school was useless. Except Reading, Writing, Arithmetic. (Why was it called the three 'R's?).

By the time I had left the school system I was ill equipped to face a World that challenged me. My love of reading and writing was something my Grandparents had fostered, not the school system. My love of science was a boys natural curiosity of the World around. Both of these kept me in good stead throughout my early years.

I owe the education system nothing. It owes me an explanation.

Would I now be more than I am if I had a constructivist education?

Robert wrote:

"By the time I had left the school system I was ill equipped to face a World that challenged me. My love of reading and writing was something my Grandparents had fostered, not the school system. My love of science was a boys natural curiosity of the World around. Both of these kept me in good stead throughout my early years.

I owe the education system nothing. It owes me an explanation.

Would I now be more than I am if I had a constructivist education?"

It's good to remember that produced you also produced the great minds of your time. Based on your account, it's safe to say that there much better students and much worse students. You were just average or slightly below.

That's normal. There is nothing wrong with such system. Not everyone who goes to school will become a genius.

That said, the important question is not what the school system did or didn't do for you.

The important question is:

"Will handing a laptop to kids - rich or poor, smart or dumb - autoMagically result in a (supposedly great) Constructivist education?"

That's question for Negroponte to answer. So far, he has not made a credible case that giving computers to elementary school children will significantly improve their education.

Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Nobody knows, even though the history of computers in the classroom is littered with indifferent results.

Most countries are doing the smart thing: they are waiting for evidence that their education dollars will not be wasted on a misguided techno-dream...

Robert wrote:

"By the time I had left the school system I was ill equipped to face a World that challenged me. My love of reading and writing was something my Grandparents had fostered, not the school system. My love of science was a boys natural curiosity of the World around. Both of these kept me in good stead throughout my early years.

I owe the education system nothing. It owes me an explanation.

Would I now be more than I am if I had a constructivist education?"

It's good to remember that the system that produced you also produced the great minds of your time. Based on your account, it's safe to say that there were much better students and much worse students. You were just average or slightly below-average.

That's normal. There is nothing wrong with such system. Not everyone who goes to school will become a genius.

That said, the important question is not what the school system did or didn't do for you.

The important question is:

"Will handing a laptop to kids - rich or poor, smart or dumb - autoMagically result in a (supposedly great) Constructivist education?"

That's question for Negroponte to answer. So far, he has not made a credible case that giving computers to elementary school children will significantly improve their education.

Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Nobody knows, even though the history of computers in the classroom is littered with indifferent results.

Most countries are doing the smart thing: they are waiting for evidence that their education dollars will not be wasted on a misguided techno-dream...

Irvin you are asking a question that is impossible to answer right now. Like most people that are in the negative you ask for proof of a system that is under trial.

As you said:
"The important question is:

Will handing a laptop to kids - rich or poor, smart or dumb - autoMagically result in a (supposedly great) Constructivist education?"

And you replied to yourself:
"Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Nobody knows, even though the history of computers in the classroom is littered with indifferent results."

Thats where the difference lies. Its not about "Computers in the classroom", it is how they are used! The OLPC cause is not to put laptops into childrens hands, it is about giving children a way to learn outside the box by getting into the box.

I learnt inside the box and it did me very little good.

Robert,
It must have done you some good. You seem intelligent and well-educated. You evidently got the foundation you needed to succeed at the next level. As you ask, "Would I now be more than I am if I had a constructivist education?" - impossible to tell.

The OLPC cause is not to put laptops into childrens hands, it is about giving children a way to learn outside the box by getting into the box. - what would that look like, would it be a teacher using the XO to demonstrate a point or would it be children collaborating with each other or children working alone? Do they have to use XOs or would any computer do?

Robert wrote:

"Irvin you are asking a question that is impossible to answer right now."


Sure. That's why a veredict - in favor or against spending money on one computer per student - will only become a reality once the necessary pilot programs and studies are conducted.

"Like most people that are in the negative you ask for proof of a system that is under trial."

I'm not in the negative. I'd be 100% for giving computers to students if they are completely free to the receiving country. I'm not in favor of spending huge amounts of poor people's money on a system 'under trial', as you say.

If Prof. Negroponte ever goes through the trouble of making a credible, verifiable case that his system actually benefits children, I'll be 100% supportive; for now, I only advise caution.

"Its not about 'Computers in the classroom', it is how they are used! "

Agreed. That's what the pilot projects are for: to show prospective buyers how to use and benefit from the product.


"The OLPC cause is not to put laptops into childrens hands, it is about giving children a way to learn outside the box by getting into the box."

Sounds very exciting. Hopefully, Prof. Negroponte & Co. will go beyond the words and will actually show, through controlled, transparent and verifiable studies that his vision has merit. Only then will reasonable people buy into his 'dream'.

I'm sorry to appear negative. I have nothing against computers in the classroom. I don't think children suffer if given a laptop. I only advocate caution, so that poor people's money is used in the moste effective, beneficial way.

Edward, I find your description "that almost every education system in the world was created by a colonial power, not to encourage innovation and problem-solving, but to keep the population in order while their country was pillaged" is a gross generalization that is wrong in many different levels.

Consider Latin America, and beyond the fact that all our educational systems were created well after independence, too many reforms and transformations have taken place to assume that the first and foremost aim is to keep order in the population. Actually, it well may be the other way around, since the existence of educational systems has allowed for many popular demands to be articulated and developed into political issues. It is the case in Peru, as many scholars have discussed.

Also: the reforms have in many cases brought the systems into new strategies and pedagogical models, including constructivism (not individual but class-based) and their failure are quite more complex to analyze. In Peru, for instance, the problem does not lie in the curriculum, but in a combination of serious structural limitations, including budget well below the actual needed amount to make the system work as intended, together with badly qualified teachers and a disconnection between the demands of the economy and the goals pursued by education.

Irvin wrote:
"... The OLPC Project will have a chance the day it becomes an education project. So far, it is all about the hardware, with education taking a distant back seat.
Pilot Projects, anyone? "

I vehemently disagree that education has taken a distant back seat. The design of the operating system to facilitate a shared experience, the choice of software that encourages collaborative creative experience, tools for connecting to the internet where available, and the inclusion of a heavy dose of logic and programming software have been built into this. Even this first cut is a rich environment for learning. My three - ages 5, 8 and 10 have found it so.

There is certainly work to be done. But the fact that this is a non-profit initiative and can utilize the skills of thousands across the world to create free software that can be used by countries with few resources provides tremendous potential.

No educational initiative is a panacea, but I believe this is the beginning of something that will make a profound difference for those countries that are participating, both in the fairly short term and years down the road.

"That's normal. There is nothing wrong with such system. Not everyone who goes to school will become a genius."

Look at what the vice-provost of CalTech has to say about this theme, relating it to the ongoing collapse of a previously exponentially-increasing pyramid scheme of PhD production:
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html
"The average American professor in a research university turns out about 15 Ph.D students in the course of a career. In a stable, steady-state world of science, only one of those 15 can go on to become another professor in a research university. In a steady-state world, it is mathematically obvious that the professor's only reproductive role is to produce one professor for the next generation. But the American Ph.D is basically training to become a research professor. It didn't take long for American students to catch on to what was happening. The number of the best American students who decided to go to graduate school started to decline around 1970, and it has been declining ever since. ... Recently, however, a vastly different picture of science education has been put forth and has come to be widely accepted. It is the metaphor of the pipeline. The idea is that our young people start out as a torrent of eager, curious minds anxious to learn about the world, but as they pass through the various grades of schooling, that eagerness and curiosity is somehow squandered, fewer and fewer of them showing any interest in science, until at the end of the line, nothing is left but a mere trickle of Ph.D's. Thus, our entire system of education is seen to be a leaky pipeline, badly in need of repairs. ... I believe it is a serious mistake to think of our system of education as a pipeline leading to Ph.D's in science or in anything else. For one thing, if it were a leaky pipeline, and it could be repaired, then as we've already seen, we would soon have a flood of Ph.D's that we wouldn't know what to do with. For another thing, producing Ph.Ds is simply not the purpose of our system of education. Its purpose instead is to produce citizens capable of operating a Jeffersonian democracy, and also if possible, of contributing to their own and to the collective economic well being. To regard anyone who has achieved those purposes as having leaked out of the pipeline is silly. ... I would like to propose a different and more illuminating metaphor for American science education. It is more like a mining and sorting operation, designed to cast aside most of the mass of common human debris, but at the same time to discover and rescue diamonds in the rough, that are capable of being cleaned and cut and polished into glittering gems, just like us, the existing scientists. It takes only a little reflection to see how much more this model accounts for than the pipeline does. It accounts for exponential growth, since it takes scientists to identify prospective scientists. It accounts for the very real problem that women and minorities are woefully underrepresented among the scientists, because it is hard for us, white, male scientists to perceive that once they are cleaned and cut and polished, they will look like us. It accounts for the fact that science education is for the most part a dreary business, a burden to student and teacher alike at all levels of American education, until the magic moment when a teacher recognizes a potential peer, at which point it becomes exhilarating and successful. Above all, it resolves the paradox of Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates. It explains why we have the best scientists and the most poorly educated students in the world. It is because our entire system of education is designed to produce precisely that result."

Ann wrote,
I vehemently disagree that education has taken a distant back seat. The design of the operating system to facilitate a shared experience, the choice of software that encourages collaborative creative experience, tools for connecting to the internet where available, and the inclusion of a heavy dose of logic and programming software have been built into this.

---
Unfortunately, in order to use all of that you have to buy the hardware.

Eduardo wrote:
Also: the reforms have in many cases brought the systems into new strategies and pedagogical models, including constructivism (not individual but class-based) and their failure are quite more complex to analyze. In Peru, for instance, the problem does not lie in the curriculum, but in a combination of serious structural limitations, including budget well below the actual needed amount to make the system work as intended, together with badly qualified teachers and a disconnection between the demands of the economy and the goals pursued by education.
---
ie funds to implement their current plans, let alone enough to cover the unknown costs of this program.

The business of learning by recitation is fine to some extent as it gets one through certain basic things. However, it precludes critical thinking because the onus of critical thinking is expected to be with the "teacher". I studied in India and attended a variety of schools including private, public and catholic schools. I remember my multiplication tables very well, but it wasn't until I started to learn BASIC programming that I realized the relationship between addition and multiplication (my experience only - maybe I am slow). Here's my experience with multiplication tables and how something like Pippy could have made it better.

http://sameerverma.org/blog/?postid=164

--
Sameer

> I remember my multiplication tables very well,
> but it wasn't until I started to learn BASIC
> programming that I realized the relationship
> between addition and multiplication

I was thinking about the same example a few months back. When I was in school, they had us memorize from 0*0 to 12*12. They gave us a couple of simple rules to make life easier. (I recall the rule for 0 times a number and 1 times a number were given. In all likelihood we were also told about commutivity, albeit not by name. We were also taught multiplication as repeated addition.

In spite of all of that, I continually run into students who cannot handle simple arithmetic. Now a lot of people blame that on the abundance of calculators in classrooms. Maybe they're right, but I suspect that it goes a bit deeper than that. For the most parts students are taught to take things in and spew them out. As teachers we ask them to think about it and ask them to understand it, but we rarely ask them to do something that would require true comprehension. Asking them to solve a multiplication problem, either expressed as such or in terms of a richer problem, doesn't ask them to think about what they are doing because they can simply pull the result from their head or with a calculator. Even asking students to express concepts in their own words doesn't help. Usually it is just a game in manipulating sentences to fool their teacher. (A game that they do poorly in at that!)

I think that's where constructivism enters the picture. You cannot truly ask a student if they understand something unless you ask them to develop the ideas themselves. Because if you don't ask them to develop the idea themselves, chances are that they are just parroting back what someone else told them.

Hi Edward et al,

Thanks for picking up and extending the discussion.

I assume that kids learn best when the subject is relevant to them and affects their lives. The challenge it to uncover the relevant themes the factors which limits their lives and educational opportunities. For example, students will learn addition quickly if they enjoy it and its meaningful for them.

Oncovering the right themes needs a dialog between teachers and students. The dialogic process transforms learning from a banking method where teachers deposit knowledge in students heads to a problem-posing method where teachers-students work together to develop the educational themes relevant for them.

That's a blog level explanation of my theory of education. I get it from my own experience, that of my children and importantly from Paulo Freire:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulo_Freire

Contructionism adds the value of students learning by creating. In the XO case, its mostly creating information and software.

The XO adds the dimension of allowing the tools of education to be built by the teachers-students. It also brings the developers (including students, teachers and programmers of all types) in to the dialog. I'm not aware of any good defintion of how to engage a third party (the development community) in the educational dialog.

Regardless, the students-teachers have a special place in the discussion and we mustn't drown out their input with our preconceived notions of learning.

Freire definitely placed his theories in the context of economic and social revolution. I read that as a set of themes that were most relevant for him and the people he worked for. They may or may not be the most relevant themes for the XO users and supporters.

If my assumption about how students best learn is correct they will do better on tests (if the tests are at all relevant) and the education ministries and everyone else will be satisfied. I agree that we need to test and validate or reject the assumptions.

That's a lot of theory. The actionable item is to make the XO in to a malleable learning tool which facilitates learning. The core is there in a little green package. It will take a lot of dialog and development to make it successful in many different schools.

Professional developers are in the loop. Let's get the teachers, students and educators of all kinds in the loop too. Then the dialog can begin!

I can't wait to see where it will lead...

Thanks,

Greg Smith

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