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Thanks for listening to this episode of The Research Files from Teacher magazine. I’m Rebecca Vukovic.
My guest today is Dr Gary Stager, one of the world’s leading experts and advocates for computer programming, robotics and learning-by-doing in classrooms. He’s also a journalist, teacher educator, consultant, professor, software developer, publisher, school administrator, and presenter at conferences around the world – but I’ll have Gary explain to you a little more about his extensive and impressive work early on in the episode. The reason for our interview today is to talk about his 30-year study into laptop use in schools. In fact, in 1990, Gary led the professional development in the world’s first laptop school. I ask him about the challenges they faced back then in the implementation of the program, how students engaged with the technology in the early days, but also what he’s learned about the way computers are used in schools today. Let’s jump in.
Rebecca Vukovic: Dr Gary Stager, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.
Gary Stager: It’s great to be here, thanks for inviting me.
RV: To begin, I’d like to talk a little bit about your professional background and given you’ve had a career spanning 30 years or more and you’ve done such a range of interesting things, this may just be the most difficult question of the whole interview. But nevertheless, could you tell listeners a little bit about yourself and give a brief overview of your career to date?
GS: Again, thanks for inviting me Rebecca. I’ve been involved in education formally for a very long time. Since 1982 I’ve been advocating for learning by doing, computer programming, robotics – things like that in classrooms. My goal has always been to help teachers make sense of a world in which wondrous opportunities exist for knowledge construction, not so much to teach kids things we’ve always wanted them to know with greater efficiency or efficacy or comprehension, but to create opportunities to learn and do in ways that were unimaginable just a couple of years ago.
So I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time in a number of instances during my career. I created one of the first online postgraduate degree programs for educators back in the 90s, I’ve been teaching online in some form since the late 80s, I was the principle investigator for Seymour Papert, the father of educational computing’s last institutional research project in which we created a high tech, multi-age, project-based, alternative learning environment inside a troubled prison for teenagers. I’m the co-author of a book called Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, which was just published in its eighth language and will be out in Chinese soon. That book has been called the ‘Bible of the maker movement in schools’. I started the Constructing Modern Knowledge Educator Institute, I now publish books by creative educators for creative educators; and even started a publishing company for Arts books – jazz is one of my passions since I was a child and the first book we published this year was just named Jazz Book of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. That has nothing to do with Teacher magazine but it has to do with my eclecticism.
I continue to speak at conferences around the world and lead professional development in schools all over the place, who are committed to the idea that we should make school the best seven hours of a kid’s life and help make the world a better place for kids. One of the ways in which I believe we do that is by recognising that we have an obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love, and we do that by democratising experience and access to expertise. And, I’ve taught everything from preschoolers through to doctoral level as well.
RV: Wow, yeah, so clearly you’ve done so many interesting things. And of course we’re here today to talk about your 30-year study into laptop computer use in schools. Interestingly, it was an Australian school that was the world’s first 1:1 laptop school and I understand that you led the professional development at this school. How did you come to be involved in this project?
GS: You know it’s really important to assert the fact that all of this began in Australia. I’m not Australian but I’m incredibly proud of the work that was done there by my colleagues and a little bit by me. And I think it’s really important to sort of plant the flag and let people know that this wasn’t an American-centric event. More than 50 years ago, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon were talking about every kid having a computer and not only having a computer at a time when most adults had never touched one, but that the kids would have agency over that computer and they would be programming it themselves, and that idea was viewed as science fiction until a couple of people in Australia took it seriously. David Loader – who was Principal of Methodist Ladies College (MLC) in Kew, Victoria, at the time – in 1989, committed every child at his school having a laptop and using that laptop in a constructionist fashion to program across the curriculum, to bring ideas to life, to mess about with powerful ideas. At the most fundamental level, he recognised that computers were increasingly abundant and they were smaller and cheaper and it was probably a good idea for kids to seize this power. But there was also a deep educational mission associated with that which we can talk about in some detail.
But around the same time, not long after that, the Queensland Department of Education actually, at least publicly, expressed a similar enthusiasm for the idea and I’d always wanted to go to Australia. There was a book I’d read in Third Grade (or Year 3) here in the United States called, I think it was called This is Australia, it’s been recently republished – a picture book – and I’d always wanted to go and there was an academic conference, the World Conference on Computers in Education in Darling Harbour, Sydney. It was one of the first major events at that facility in 1990, and it was going to be quite a big event and I wrote a paper and it was accepted. And off I flew to Australia and I met these amazing educators who were just doing this wildly crazy thing that I had only ever dreamed of, which was kids having their own computers. It was a personal computer and they were programming and they were making things and they were learning all sorts of things that no one thought kids were capable of doing and they were doing it across the curriculum with a cross-section of teachers equally enthusiastic with what was happening.
Coming from my American-centric, public school experience and my advocacy for public education, I actually thought that the Queensland piece of this was the part that was going to be more significant, both educationally and historically. I always joke that, in 1990 the Queensland Department of Education was publicly stating that by 1991 every kid in Queensland would have a laptop – and for any number of reasons that obviously didn’t happen, but I met David Loader and these folks from Queensland and I said ‘boy I wish I could see what you are doing in schools, it sounds so exciting, I’d love to visit someday’. And 45 minutes later they said, ‘we’ve put the money together, when can you return?’ and I was back a month later.
And I’ve been to Australia 75 or 80 times since and completed my doctorate at the University of Melbourne and I barrack for the Richmond Tigers and I’ve spent a significant part of my adult life working in Australia. So it was really two schools that started it and it was just a dumb accident that I’d already been trying to bring to life Seymour Papert’s vision of kids programming and using computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression; and David Loader, in particular, recognised that I could be really useful in helping his staff, helping his faculty develop the capacity to realise the vision – and I spent the better part of the next 10 years working in various schools in Australia trying to help that be possible.
RV: You mentioned there that there were two schools involved from the very beginning and that’s what I’d like to talk a little bit more about now. Could you share with listeners how it began with Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne, but also Coombabah State Primary School in Queensland?
GS: This has been written about in books and I’m not an expert because it actually pre-dates me by about six months. But, like I said, sometime around the end of 1989 David Loader, he had read Seymour Papert’s book Mindstorms, he was well versed in progressive education literature, he was increasingly distressed by the quality of education that was being afforded to students in the school that he led and recognised that things needed to change and there was this computer revolution that was having an impact on every other aspect of human endeavour and surely it was worthwhile to invest in kid power. There was a woman named Liddy Nevile who was his muse and helped him with his ideas and I think was also a bridge to the folks in Queensland who embraced the idea.
While MLC committed to going 1:1 in Years 5-12, and then eventually sprinkling it lower, the Queensland project was concerned with, I believe, students in Year 5 and 6. And one of the ways that you and I have met was me growing concerned that the Coombabah story had been lost to history and I’ve been badgering people for about 10 years to find some of the seminal research documents, documenting what happened in Queensland, so that it would be in the historic record.
RV: Of course, what you’re referring to there Gary is the fact that the Australian Council for Educational Research Cunningham Library staff have made these works freely available on the ACER Repository. I know you’ve published a blog post about this too where you talk about how excited you are to know that these important documents won’t be lost to history. For listeners, I’ll include links to all these resources in the transcript of this episode at teachermagazine.com. I’d like to talk about challenges now – back then Gary, in 1990, what were some of the key challenges that teachers and school leaders faced in the implementation of the 1:1 laptop program?
GS: Well the first thing is I think there is probably a distinction that needs to be made. David Loader at MLC was being quite bold and courageous and stating publicly that ‘although you trust us with your children and you pay school fees, you should be dissatisfied with what we’re doing’, and had a grand vision for what education could and should be. My suspicion is the Queensland folks, because it was a large public bureaucracy, were a lot more attracted to the idea that computers touch the future, jobs or economic development. But, because all the same people were involved, there was a lot of cross-fertilisation of ideas. I’m always amused by how many Australian school leaders I've met over the last 31 years who introduce themselves as being at ‘the third school to go 1:1’ – because the first two are pretty well documented and then it was everybody else.
Before I get to answer your question specifically, I like to say that very early on we observed that there were kind of three schools that were dealing with 1:1. There were the pioneers, the folks like Coombabah and MLC that really wanted to reinvent what education could and should be. There was the marketeers, these were the schools that just wanted to announce that they’d bought something and that gave them a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And I should also mention there were schools geographically proximate to MLC who’s marketing was ‘we ain’t doing this’. Or ‘if you’re teaching kids to be creative, we’re going to teach them to use Microsoft Office’. And I think there was more than a little hint of sexism involved as well that, ‘this is what girls do, program computers’, which is kind of funny on its face. So, in our mixed gender or male schools, we’re going to teach them clerical skills for the 19th Century – like I said, it’s patently absurd but that was enough to generate whatever kind of heat and attention they needed. And then the third category of schools was the neighbours, and it was just the fact that once the school down the street did it, it became really difficult for you not to get involved as well. And the neighbours, just like in real life, have a nasty habit of mucking things up for everyone else.
But explicitly, to your question, I think one of the challenges was to do this with existing faculty. And what’s most extraordinary, specifically with how it happened at Methodist Ladies College, is that within a couple of years over 1000 children and all of their teachers, at some level, were integrating personal computers, were programming on them were creating things on them, were manipulating media and they were doing it across the curriculum. And as my colleague Kevin Richardson, who is now a principal at Immanuel College in South Australia remarked, it was a really sharp observation on his part ‘MLC did this with their existing teachers’ – which has given me a lot of hope and optimism of all the work that I’ve done since about what is actually possible. And if you put pins in a map of where those teachers from MLC went, they became school principals with remarkable frequency. They started companies, they got university jobs, a statistically significant number of teachers at both Coombabah and MLC went and got advanced degrees. They dressed differently, they viewed their role differently, their relationship with kids, their relationships with knowledge, their own sense of confidence and competence as educators. They sort of grew up before our very eyes. And that’s one of the lessons I take from the experience, that’s really significant.
The thing that I find really important to say is, I don’t think the word ‘program’ was used very much and certainly the term ‘pilot’ was never used. This was never a pilot, schools who engaged in pilot projects because the pilot implies a high probability of failure and an escape clause for when you announce ‘oh, that didn’t work and we’re going to go in another direction’. There was just a recognition that personal computing was going to and should play an increasingly large role in the intellectual, creative, social development of children and why not be the first one’s to do it. And again this is something that Australia should be enormously proud of. And it’s only been in the last year that Steve Costa, the first teacher in the world who put his hand up and said, ‘yeah I’ll teach Year 5s or 6s with every kid having a computer’ and did it for another 30 years, retired. People should know of him and his work and his contributions and the joy and skill and expertise and enthusiasm and sense of wonder he brought to the enterprise every day, until about a year ago.
RV: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about the impact that this had on teachers and I’d also now like to talk a little bit about the impact it had on students because in his 2003 book, Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning, Bob Johnstone wrote about the implementation of the laptop program at MLC. I’m going to read a quote to you from the book because I found it really interesting. He said: ‘The teachers were proud of how well the girls cared for their machines. But they were taken aback when, a few weeks later, stickers of ponies and butterflies and fairies started to appear on the cases. They needn’t have worried: the stickers (and, sometimes, the pet names the girls gave their machines) simply meant that the students were comfortable with their computers. They had accepted them as part of their world.’ I thought that was just such an interesting quote and I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what this actually says about the way that students are able accept new technology with enthusiasm.
GS: We knew right away that the girls had taken ownership of the machines and, by extension, more importantly, owned the knowledge that was constructed within. And there were parents complaining that all their children do is program – which is hilarious when you think about the passive ways in which a parent uses an iPad to shut a toddler up in a Pancake Parlour. This was a very different view of computing and what children were capable of and rather than be hysterical about it, the school sort of embraced this. And it’s really important to stress, PC stands for something – it doesn’t stand for anything in schools but in the rest of the world it stands for Personal Computer. This was the kid’s computer. And so the school didn’t overly regulate what they did with it.
For 30 years, I’ve had schools fly me all over the world and they say ‘oh, great Oracle, may we ask you an important question?’ and one of the hard hitting question I get posed is ‘what do we do about the kids playing games on the machines?’ And my answer is always the same, ‘ask them to stop’. But more importantly, the rule was if the kids could play any game they made. So the kids were involved in the mathematical thinking and the computer science and the problem solving and the design and the animation of the things that they created and they found themselves lost in those experiences. That typically when you have an assignment due at school, if you present it to the class, some kids presents something that is completely off the charts fantastic, probably done by or with a parent, and then the rest of the kids just sort of sink in their chairs and think to themselves, ‘oh geez, there goes the curve’. But what we saw over and over again in the early laptop schools was, kids would say ‘that’s really cool’ and even if they turned the assignment in, they would continue working on what they had made because they wanted to make it bigger and they wanted to integrate the new knowledge that they had gained from somewhere else.
But this had an impact on the school as a whole as well. When kids were working on projects that took more than 15 or 42-and-a-half minutes of a class period, the teachers at MLC realised that they needed to do something about it. So they collaborated and came to the administration with the idea of having a three-hour uninterrupted humanities block so they could teach History, Geography, Religious Studies, Language, Arts, all together so kids could work on an integrated project. And this is fundamentally different from a school principal going to a conference somewhere, hearing about block scheduling and imposing it on people. This was something that the teachers invented because it would serve the children who they’re employed to benefit.
Just like a French teacher who wanted to get involved in using the laptops and heard that the programming language the kids were using was available in French and didn’t know where to start. So she asked one of the maths teachers if he would help, and he said, ‘well I’m busy, leave me alone but I’ll tell you what I’ll do, if the girls want to complete their maths assignments in French instead of English, that’s fine with me’. And a month later the French teacher ran into the principal’s office hyperventilating because she’d actually walked into a maths classroom, which was probably the only time in history that had occurred, and she saw children speaking French to each other which is something she hadn’t seen in her entire career. And they were not only speaking French to each other, they were speaking French to the computer. And they were getting the computer to realise their intellectual, creative vision via a foreign language.
So things like that happened, as did not just scheduling and not just the segregation and the siloing of courses, but the furniture changed. When I arrived at Methodist Ladies College, it was indistinguishable from a 15th Century monastery. There were benches that children sat behind, wooden benches, that went from wall to window and if a teacher needed to engage with a kid in the third row they had to shimmy over or under one of these benches. Well, as soon as there were 20 or 30 kids working on independent or small group collaborative projects, teachers needed to be able to move around, kids needed to be able to move around. All kinds of physical, new physical spaces with flexible seating and room to move started to become the norm. At first we were just chucking furniture into the corridor, but eventually a lot of the physical plan was re-designed.
And I should also mention that no one … Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the One Laptop per Child initiative said, and the founder of the MIT Media Lab, he used to say ‘no one washes a hire car’. We found early on, and subsequently, that when the children owned the computer and are doing meaningful things with it, they don’t break the computers, they don’t lose the computers. If a school has a high incidence rate of theft, loss, damage to their laptops, I can predict the low level, tedious, coercive, knuckle-dragging assignments that they’re expected to create on the laptops. At MLC, they were using the laptops to call upon our better angels and to do things that were fantastic and wondrous and fun and interesting and that kids could fall in love with. And we helped the teachers recognise what the children were learning in this new medium.
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RV: And Gary I’ve mentioned quite a few times now that it’s been 30 years since the program launched. But 30 years on, I’m wondering, what have been some of the key changes to take place in schools regarding the way they use laptops?
GS: It’s gotten worse. I often say that if we wanted to make schools better we’d find a cure for amnesia. And that’s why it’s important to have these conversations, why it’s important for me to have browbeat ACER into finding some of the original Coombabah studies and scanning them so we could put them online for other people to see; to recognise that the first doctoral thesis on the 1:1 experience at [Coombabah State Primary School] was published in 1995.
We were considered utopians and dreamers, or just irresponsible folks throwing money around, or doing these crazy things like putting computers in the hands of kids during the age in which all serious creative and intellectual work is done on computers – until something occurred about 18 months ago, this little thing called the COVID-19 pandemic. And at that point, computers which were possible to provide to children started raining down from the skies and all of a sudden everyone had a device.
And I always love the use of the term ‘device’ in schools. Device is a term only used when you’re trying to do something on the cheap for other people’s children. No one walks into a Harvey Norman or an Apple store and asks ‘can I have a device please?’ You buy computers. And you want to buy computers that allow children to do more things than the curriculum expects or imagines them to be able to do. And it’s worth pointing out that in 1990, from 1990 to about 1995, MLC’s couple thousand laptops were managed by a nice old lady named Louise, who when your laptop broke on a rare occasion, you went and saw Louise and she patted you on the head and dried your tears and said, ‘it’s okay honey, I’ll call Computelec and you’ll have your computer back tomorrow.’ And one of the innovations of Australia was laptops were being repaired within hours for kids. It’s not insignificant that the leasing, how to buy a computer, how to lease a computer, how to maintain a computer, for children was also invented in Australia as well as the educational vision.
… So, I was a lot more optimistic before the pandemic than I am now. I think if there’s any room for optimism, I think it’s probably unlikely that kids won’t have computers from here on out. But I think that over time, this sort of grand, humane, magical vision of what happened in the early 90s in Australia has largely been forgotten, it bubbles up here and there.
RV: I guess that leads well into my next question Gary, because I want to just touch on a little bit more of your personal feelings. I want to know about some of the things you’ve personally learned, because you’ve looked at this for such a long time. What have been some of those key things that you’ve learned along the way?
GS: I think I’ll focus on three things. One is, it is possible to change the world. It was extraordinary, the level of engagement, of enthusiasm, of commitment that we found among most of the teachers that were involved both at Coombabah and at MLC. Not all, but a significant majority. And they revolutionised, like I said before, everything. Scheduling, curriculum, assessment, teacher-student ratio, they embraced project-based learning and started reading the progressive education literature and implementing it in their own practice. They started taking courses, we ran camps for new kids and existing kids during the school holidays, we took teachers away to experience the kinds of open-ended, project-based, computationally-rich, learning adventures that we wanted them to be able to create for their students where we asked them to take off their teacher hat and put on their learner hat. And we saw that things need not be as they seemed, and that it could happen even in a school where the idea of 1:1 computing passed a 27-member school board by one vote. It happened in somewhere like Queensland’s Government, in a brief moment of clarity or insanity, depending on your perspective.
I think the second idea is that we need to raise our expectations and we need to recognise that teachers are capable and competent, that they can do great things. There was never any after school workshop on how to use an iPad. The approach that we took was, if you want to learn how to use your computer for report writing, the school would let you go to a workshop either in their community education division or at a TAFE, but this wasn’t the mission of our professional development in the school. The mission of the professional development in the schools was to make school a more constructive place in which kids could fall in love with things they didn’t know existed and to become good at something and to develop mastery and to work in an integrated fashion across the curriculum, and to create and debug and to explore and to test hypotheses. So the emphasis of the professional development was always on higher standards of what teaching could be, what learning could look like in an age where every child had a personal computer, and we left the mechanical stuff to be figured out.
And I remember saying to teachers, ‘if you can’t figure out this report writing thing, hire the seven-year-old next door’ but that’s not what we’re here for. And again, if you look around, how much professional development today is dedicated to the latest app, the latest clerical tool that the administration wants to teach teachers to use. It’s all this sort of … level stuff and you should recognise that computers are still buggy and annoying and idiosyncratic and if you first experience with a computer is using it to do something you hate doing – like reporting to the administration – then the chances of that creating exciting new learning opportunities for your students are very low. And that’s why, now, 40 years after Microcomputers entered classrooms all over the world, we’re still trying to find ways to beg, bribe, cajole, trick, coerce, threaten teachers to use the stuff. The goal from the beginning was to revolutionise what happened in the classrooms and, more importantly, between the ears of the kids, and the relationship between kids and other kids, and kids and teachers. So recognising that teachers are capable and competent was the second really big lesson.
The third one is that in order to achieve this, you need to keep the rope tight. Meaning that, if you’re trying to pull something – let’s imagine you have a little red wagon and you have a rope attached to it – if the rope is loose, there’s not very much forward momentum, there’s not much forward progress made. And when I work with teachers, and when we worked with teachers back then, there was this expectation that we’ll provide whatever you need to do the impossible, but we expect the impossible. And as a result, some teachers fell a little short and some exceeded our wildest expectations. In every way imaginable, even down to things like, Rebecca, I remember back in early 90s, maybe 91, 92, 93, the teachers at MLC got tired of queuing up to use a printer, and they asked if the school could have vendors come in and show them printers during lunch hour. And there were teachers buying $5000 laser printers for their homes because they wanted to be able to print without queuing up or fighting over the scarce resource in the school. It’s worth noting that the original laptops cost in the neighbourhood of $3000 Australian dollars and kids at MLC were told you couldn’t come back without one, and the teachers had to spend about 25 per cent of the cost themselves to have some skin in the game and to have some flexibility for what kind of computer they wanted.
And one of the lessons we learned, I’ll give you a fourth, is that scarcity is a major obstacle to use. If you’re still trying to get an extra three minutes at the computer lab that you visit once a fortnight like you were taking an excursion to Sovereign Hill, then it’s just not going to be worth it for you as a teacher to learn and develop new skills to think about teaching in new ways. And it’s certainly not going to be worth it to girls. It’s worth putting a really fine point on this – in 1989 a girls’ school was the first school in the world to commit to a laptop for every child and there were going to explicitly be using that to program the computer. Because we were answering the question that Seymour Papert began asking in 1968 – Does the computer program the child or does the child program the computer? MLC decided the child would program the computer. This was a girls’ school. Now think about how much money and drama has been invested in a state, in your nation, around the world, in the deep concern 30-plus years later about gender inequity and about bro culture in Silicon Valley and about girls being underrepresented in the computational sciences. Imagine if we had taken what happened in your backyard seriously – how the world might be a different place today.
RV: Gary, I’ve so enjoyed listening to your stories and your insights. But I’m wondering for teachers and school leaders listening to today’s podcast, where can they learn more about your work in this area? Do you have any resources that we can direct them to?
GS: I’ve give you a few URLs and I’ll do a better job of making some of the laptop stuff specifically findable. But if you go to professorgarystager.com or constructingmodernknowledge.com or my blog at stager.tv you’ll find a lot of information, and as well as how to contact me. I’ve not only shared the ACER documents on my blog at stager.tv but also the book that MLC published in 1993, I was collecting the stories of the teachers who were doing the work. And that was given to the thousands of teachers who visited over a few year period who wanted to learn about what was happening in their classrooms and they felt it was incumbent upon them to welcome visitors in a controlled fashion and to give them something that they could hold onto. And that too would have been lost to history had I not, kind of, ‘MacGyver’d’ a copy of it and put it on the web so people could see that what was good is good and that we’ve done great things in classrooms for kids, and we can certainly do them again.
RV: And so all those resources you’ve mentioned just then, I will include hyperlinks to all of them in the transcript of this podcast. But for now, Dr Gary Stager, it’s been so lovely chatting with you. Thanks for sharing your work with Teacher magazine.
GS: It’s an honour. I hope to be in Australia as soon as all this craziness is over.
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Editor's note: This transcript was updated on 24/08/21 to clarify that the doctoral thesis published in 1995 was on the 1:1 experience at Coombabah State School, Queensland, and not MLC as mentioned in the podcast. The audio recording has not been updated.
Think about the ways in which you use computers at school with students. Are you providing opportunities for students to engage in meaningful learning opportunities? Do you encourage students to collaborate with each other to do this?
The two schools mentioned in today’s podcast embraced a culture of innovation. In what ways does your school embrace innovation to make it easier for those who wish to take risks? If your school isn’t particularly innovative, how could you go about changing this?