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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


After hearing about the excursions planned for the week to Torrey Pines State National Reserve, San Dieguito Lagoon, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Scripps Institution of Oceanography we were also informed that we would augment these experiences with an iTunes U course and a series of biology texts called Life On Earth by E. O. Wilson.

Then, much to the delight of everyone there, biologist and researcher Edward Osborne Wilson, also know as E.O. Wilson, took to the stage and sat in a leather seat unfolding his prepared notes. An incredibly dignified and generous man, Wilson spoke to us for an hour about biology, the importance of science to the human condition, and achieving excellence.  He even spoke boldly and unapologetically about religion.

E. O. Wilson Wilson, a highly successful, prolific and decorated scientist, focused on the study of ants, known as myrmecology.  He says that studying a single organism can lead to a great breakthrough.

“For every organism, there are advancements to be made that couldn’t be made from any other discipline.” ~ E. O. Wilson

To him, biology will help humanity and lead to better self understanding.  He invites all of us to take up membership in the scientific community as a natural and normal extension of our humanity.  It is not only our duty to take an interest in the natural world, but an unavoidable need we should not suppress.

Near the end of his talk he veered off the path of biology towards achieving excellence and nurturing excellence in young scientists.  He says that the successful scientists he knows did not have the highest IQ.  Wilson spoke of his friend Watson (as in James Watson, as in Watson and Crick as in DNA) who did not have the highest IQ, but more importantly a restlessness and an entrepreneurial obsession.  The great scientists had a desire to do something big.  They asked themselves “What hasn’t been done?”  and “What is extraordinary?”  As teachers, he asked of us to look for children who have this restlessness and desire for science and to encourage them on the path to owning their part in the scientific community.

E.O. Wilson has authored and led a team to create the highly interactive iBook series, Life on Earth.  These books are incredible.  Amazingly, they are also free.

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 1: Unity & Diversity of Life on Earth

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 2: Guided Tour of the Living Cell

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 3: Genetics

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 4: Animal Physiology

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 5: Plant Physiology

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 6: Guided Tour of Biodiversity

E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth Unit 7: Guided Tour of Ecosystems


A rare shot of a pretzel log cabin moments before it's destruction!

A rare shot of a pretzel log cabin moments before it’s destruction!

The best part of making a pioneer log cabin is eating the pioneer log cabin!

The best part of making a pioneer log cabin is eating the pioneer log cabin!













The way to a student’s mind is through their heart. Or maybe their hands. Okay, definitely through the stomach!

We made pioneer log cabins out of graham crackers, pretzels and icing.  The key element, of course, were the pretzels as kids used them to form interlocking corners to help support the structures. This activity took 80 minutes to complete. In school world, that is a quarter of the day and a huge chunk of time. But, these types of tasks are essential to learning for three reasons: engagement, class culture and hands on competence.

I teach grade 3 and my dream for my students is that they develop into creative, innovative and passionate makers.  I hope they will make content on the web through writing or photography to share their life stories as they grow. I hope they will create wonderful work and home spaces with their own tools and hands that they love to spend time in. I hope the make widgets like guitar pedals or revolutionary solar panels and solutions to global warming.  Make stuff. You’ll feel better when you do. Plus, these kids are little, they need opportunities to develop their fine and gross motor skills.  Look how pumped Liam and Fraser are in these photos. They are so thrilled to have had the opportunity to hack at the crackers and have a go with making the house. Rock out boys, rock out.

As we made our pioneer pretzel cabins we listened to good ol’ Stompin’ Tom Connors.  We were really getting into the Canadiana feel as we listened to Big Joe Muffera and other classics from the legendary Stompin’ Tom.  We even took a little break from our houses to have a little time to dance around, which was a good way to fight off the sugar monsters.


I could probably have pushed through a lot of content and worksheets and tasks in 80 minutes. I could probably have exposed them to much more than log cabin houses. Soddies, plank house and more could have been on the lesson plan for that day.  But, the power of creating this shared experience can not be underestimated.  This experience is now the platform that we can build our understanding of pioneer homes and pioneer life.  The activity was never presented as an “If you are good, then you will get to…” or “At the end you will be able to …” No. The fun was front and centre and for every child.  This happy glow of engagement and positivity will hang in the air of our class like the smell of maple syrup at a sugar shack. It will carry us through at least a week of learning and getting along.  We laughed at ourselves, we laughed with each other. We tinkered. We made houses that worked and some that didn’t. But, we didn’t worry about whether or not the final product was a level 4 pretzel cabin.

We enjoyed the moment.

We had fun.

We danced.

We opened our hearts to school, learning, each other.  We opened our hearts to the possibility that school is a magical place where we can have the most wonderful time with people we love. We have been together for over 100 days of learning. It’s been a cold and wet winter with lots of indoor recess. We love each other, but at times students are starting to feel the effects of February blues and a touch of cabin fever.  This activity reinvigorated our love for our class, one another and learning.

Engagement, building class culture and hands on competence: these are essential to being human!  These are essential to a thriving learning environment. Every teacher does these sorts of activities in September to capture student’s imaginations. I am reminded that we should do these activities throughout the school year to keep our spirits high.  School should be full of these types of experiences because it makes a life worth living.


Examples of our pioneer log cabins.

Examples of our pioneer log cabins.


Gamified? Mooc! Blended?? Flipped!!!

Ed Speak by Branzburg

(click to see larger image: The Innovative Educator)

Thanks to The Innovative Educator Lisa Nielsen ( follow her on Twitter @InnovativeEdu)  for sharing this graphic by Jeff Branzburg (follow him on Twitter @branzburg, Blogging at

These are the big words that we are tweeting about and considering on our 2012/2013 lists of reflection and forward gazing. Forward gazing, navel gazing, personal devices gazing: how ever and where ever you are looking, you can’t avoid thinking about gaming and learning.

Thanks to @edkidsplay of Educational Kids Play for asking for my thoughts along several other tweeps (@ZapplePi @Robitaille2011 @schmidtjake @barb_seaton @davidfifeVP @chriswejr @datruss @marshatkelly @Kate_TL @TCDSB_21C_AICT)

Mr. Pai Gaming in the Classroom You Tube Video

Here Mr. Pai uses several handheld devices, computers and laptops to engage his students in gaming activities to work on multiplication, math facts, converting fractions and some reading activities (not shown).  I think this is a great way to practise basic math facts, and possibly for some decoding and spelling.  This is especially valuable if the students are practising at their own level in small groups and Mr. Pai is able to conduct small group instruction and assessments.  However,  where is the making?

Mr. Pai is doing a super job of engaging kids with tools they love and are familiar with to achieve success in the classroom. I applaud his sincere and honest efforts to augment education into something engaging and focused on outcomes.  As far as I can tell, however, gaming in this sense falls down on the students’ ability to create content.  We must be making stuff.

Hats off to companies for making spelling and multiplication games. This no doubt eases the conscience of the parent buyer (you know, you can learn on it too). Using devices that motivate children and using devices students are familiar with as levers for learning is noble.  But I want to talk about big “L” learning. Yeah, Learning.  Learning where you make stuff. Learning for the 21st century where you critically consume, converse and hack your projects with innovation and creativity.  Let’s use these tools for allowing us to help kids make, create and innovate.  Let these kids know that they do not simply need to be consumers.  No, kids can up-down-shift-a-a-a (that’s my talk for managing a controller) to working these devices into creation mode.

Let’s have a BigThink (plug for my new favourite consortium of ideas Big Think).  See The New Digital Literacy  by Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd calling on an urgency for programmers to be thoughtful about the web that is being created.  We are the consumers of the web, and we as teachers filter for our students.  Filter wisely dear colleagues, filter wisely.  We must ensure a healthy diet of consuming (including gaming) and making.  Balancing the inputs with the outputs is essential. Though I would argue that we should be heavier on the outputs.

Into gaming?  Why not programming?  Let’s talk about Scratch. I want to see that in the classroom. Anyone interested?