Long After the LEDs stop blinking: CMK14 and MakerEd

October 14, 2014 — 4 Comments

Constructing Modern Knowledge CMK14

Constructing Modern Knowledge (CMK) provided a summer stopping point at the intersection of learning and maker culture right in the heart of constructivism.The crowd was pretty special: whimsical, intelligent, techy, artsy, and hip in the way that people who reject hip are hip (read: geeks).  It was a group of way finders who seemed to be happy being at the outer edge of the world of education and meeting up to make a community and create some nifty projects in a 4 day period. CMK was a 4 day event held in Manch-Vegas (Manchester, New Hampshire) July 8-11 2014.  It’s taken this long for me to let this blog post free.  I have great respect for Gary Stager and his collaborators. I am also unsettled about the place of make, invention and programming at school. I want it to work, but it continues to make me uneasy.  Join me in revisiting this event and indulge me by reading my thoughts about programming, constructivism and constructionism. Thank you.  If you make it through this post, check back later this week for another on CMK14 keynote speaker Pete Nelson, Treehouse Master.

Who? Papert et al

It was perfectly clear that Seymour Papert is the patriarchal figure of CMK.  Gary Stager made frequent mention of Papert and Logo with fond affection, great loyalty and zeal.  Papert is the intellectual father and even his descendants were honoured faculty at the event.  Artemis Papert was there with her family Brian Silverman and daughter.  Authors of the authoritative book on Logo, Learning with Logo Dan and Molly Lynn Watt, also point to the lineage of this gathering.  They are elders of the community that shape the narrative by way of oral and written history.  They are also sharp minds ready to assist with the more recent incarnations of programming languages for students such as Mitch Resnick and MIT’s Scratch.   During Stager’s opening address he made so many references, both direct and indirect to Papert that I wish I had started a tally. IMG_1327

Where’s Papert? Who gets credit and who doesn’t.

Stager is not only honouring the intellectual past of programming in education, he seemed to be fighting for recognition for Papert and Papert’s contribution. He indicated several times that Papert has been systematically erased from the story of programming in education.  I was not able to get to the bottom of this sentiment expressed by Stager, but my sense is that perhaps it isn’t only Papert that has been underemphasized but also Stager and Martinez.  The two have authored a super successful book Invent to Learn and have a long history of contributing to educational circles.  They are riding a wave of enthusiasm for maker culture, hands on learning, and STEM/STEAM education.  If the maker movement is a passing fad, Gary and Sylvia will be championing constructivism and constructionism and the hard fun of invention with and through programming long after the last LED stops blinking.  After all, they and their merry folk have been around before Make was spelled with an uppercase M and followed by the familiar TM.

Constructivism Constructionism Double Take

The event is called Constructing Modern Knowledge and I am wondering why I was at all surprised by the heavy constructivist approach.  The theoretical underpinnings are from the constructivist tradition and the play and materials people.  Piaget, Patri, Montessori and Reggio Emilia are big influencers.  This is apparent from the talk and the library collection.  Michael Hyde, my friend and fellow attendee points out to me that constructivism starts to look, feel and sound a lot like constructionism. Indeed it was Papert who hand-crafted his own educational theory with the notion of constructionism. When touring the projects there was a lot of building and making and crafting and construction.  Edith Ackerman, one of the guest speakers, even suggested in her talk that perhaps “the maker movement takes hands-on too literally.”  Is a constructionist approach too literal? Is it possible that taking constructivism too literally leads to constructionism?

I love the giant robot hands.

I love the giant robot hands that one team built. IMG_1359 They were huge, glorious, well crafted.  They even worked like real hands with stringy tendons and fingers.  They were marvelous.  They are proof that making is marvelous.  But is construction enough to achieve the objectives of constructivism and play?  Would adding an arduino and some programming make it even better or would it simply be animating an inanimate object? It’s so marvelous, the picture doesn’t even begin to show the magic. But, is this constructivism or constructionism? Is one better than another? Does it matter which?

Mind your Ps and Cs (Hot words of the 21st century)

I think if we are moving our pedagogy and our curriculum towards incorporating all the illustrious C words of 21st century learning as well as the P words, than both constructivism and constructionism will have a place.  Where play, passion, peers, projects and process (The 4Ps behind Scratch) are the mega goals and values of the classroom or school then bring on the cardboard, 3D printers, scanners, arduinos and whatever-else-you’ve-got.  Edith Ackerman supports the notion of making, but also encourages us to consider making-do as in reclaiming an age of domestic arts where fixing, repairing, improving and repurposing are as valued as inventing something out of nothing. I feel in my heart that there is value here, but I also feel a trap.  Edith Ackerman is interested in the relationship between the mind, the hand and the tool.  She says that it is not about success or failure but rather the ability to determine the next step.  She also calls on us to stay with these innovations long enough to see if we were seduced by a quick thrill or whether something greater and more important emerges from the intersection of the tools and the way they are appropriated by people and communities.  CMK is an epic win because it is this kind of intersection.  One with a pulse and a heart.  Like Michael, Greg and their team’s creation (pictured below).  It can be beautiful and meaningful all at once.  But, it is confusing.  It’s closer to art than to the school I know, but I am pretty sure that’s a good thing.

Heartbeat Wall from CMK 2014 on Vimeo.

 I feel it.


“I do not remember the school ever staying with a beautiful idea long enough to have it become part of children’s lives.”

-Angelo Patri




4 responses to Long After the LEDs stop blinking: CMK14 and MakerEd

  1. Thanks Michelle, good post:

    -for starters – I think it’s OK that making makes us feel uneasy. It reminds us that really we AREN’T in control of everything, that we don’t know everything, but that we have the ability to create and exercise SOME sense of control over some aspects of our lives. Besides, inherent in the “making” discipline is the FAILURE or iteration, and that is bound to make us uneasy!

    -also – I am not sure why you think Edith’s ideas are a trap. Perhaps you could clarify that for me? Do you think she is leading us backwards? or into a closed loop of some sort?

    I really love your end quote – (“I do not remember the school ever staying with a beautiful idea long enough to have it become part of children’s lives.” -Angelo Patri) this is something I’ve been stewing about for a looong time. It’s related to John Taylor Gatto’s sobering writing about the state of our school system (or at least the american one): “The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?” (http://www.cantrip.org/gatto.html – a short pithy philosophical piece. highly recommended, but very sobering – you’ve been warned)

    He suggests (and I agree) that schools are implicitly teaching this! Contrast this with Gordon Korman (my all time fave author) in his “MacDonald Hall” books – which I eventually realized followed a formula [this was a #mindblowing realization for me with implications for all of my reading]. Each of the Bruno and Boots books had a paragraph somewhere towards the climax that went like this:

    “Students could be seen running imaginary plays on notebook pages, using x’s and o’s as players. The boys were speaking knowledgeably of screens, blitzes, encroachment, clipping and double coverage.”

    No matter what the TOPIC of the book (Beware the fish, War with Mr. Wizzle, etc.) the two boys always had an impact on the rest of the student body, and the students became PASSIONATE and ENGAGED in that topic! I know it’s a fiction, but THAT is the kind of teacher that I want to be!!!

    AND that is why I think #makered is sooo important. It’s where kids can enter into this kind of excitement for learning. Notice the quote – kids were “speaking knowledgeably”; kids “could be seen” running plays – it was obvious, visible, out there, on kids OWN time. Isn’t this exactly the visible expression of student learning we want? So why AREN’T we taking more time to hear about kids passion for minecraft and harness that for example? [ps. don’t be surprised if I copy this whole comment and spin it into a whole related blog post :)]

    • You should absolutely turn that into a blog post. Thanks for the response.

      You ask about the trap I feel. With #MakerEd there are many: the materials that are costly and if not costly will find themselves directly in a landfill one week after the project is complete. Another trap is this very literal pedagogy of constructionism. Finally, I think the trap of making-do, though it has potential, also sounds like a stab at nostalgia for the loss of domestic arts. I am completely torn on each of these points. I go in loops, round and round considering both the positive and negative implications.

      What is it to empower children? Does engagement mean letting students geek out on their own interests? Does this lead to deep thinkers or narrow-minded, undisciplined and selfish students. I can see arguments for both sides. I feel and share your enthusiasm. In my ongoing struggle to bring MakerEd to life in my classroom, I am experiencing a totally bi-polar state of loving and doubting every step.

      Your comments are very helpful. Now, make sure you blog a fuller version of this amazing comment. Thank you, David.

  2. I had to read, and re-read this article. Well done. Believe me, I feel the same uneasiness at times as I stumble forward.

    Edith Ackermann has a great quote in her article, “Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?”….
    “who are we to tell the children of others what they should learn, and how?”

    Our report cards are based on curriculum structured for specific tasks and areas of study. The addition of a 3D printer in my classroom, where students eased into the role of teacher, demonstrates what we’re missing in education. Why? Those flying under the radar, as dictated by our reporting system, became the “geniuses” as they embraced this technology, creating, editing, problem solving, collaborating on their own time. When the high school tech teachers came for a visit, it was these students who explained, using their newly acquired vocabulary, how the machine worked, its maintenance requirements, cost and time of production for each model, and their next steps. I think Edith would approve.

    Learning comes in many forms and pathways. Providing opportunities for students to discover and explore areas of their interests strengthens our connections with them. While there may be no direct mention of computer design structure in the Gr. 8 curriculum, the critical thinking skills they are developing as they collaborate and share is enriching their self-directed learning. Nerve wracking at times, but it’s fascinating to experience.

    • Thank you, Heather, for your comments. It’s comforting to know that you feel uneasy too. It’s a complex landscape to navigate.

      I love what you said about learning coming in many forms and on many pathways. It is important to provide a diverse experience, as you suggest. How differentiated is differentiated instruction? What about differentiated tools, environments, curriculum?

      Also, your point about critical thinking is true enough. I do, however, feel very committed to the Ontario Curriculum. While the title of my blog is “Hack the Classroom,” I am not as much of a rogue teacher as that name might suggest. As a teacher in a publicly funded institution, I feel I ought not deviate from the curriculum.

      Thanks for your comments.

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