Constructing Modern Knowledge, Tinkering, Homework, and What I’ve Learned

I have actually started this post a number of times in my head. I am not sure why it has been hard for me to get out, but it has. I am glad that it has. That just means I have been pondering it, and we all know when I ponder it’s a good thing. Right?

Let me set up quickly what has been fascinating about it. My son asked to spend a week at Camp Invention in Coppell, TX. We wondered what it would be like for him since it was sponsored by the US Patent Office and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He spent the week tinkering. He loved it and learned tons about thinking his way through processes. Then I headed off to New Hampshire and a week with Gary Stager, Sylvia Martinez, Paul R. Wood, Peter H. Reynolds, and Alfie Kohn just to name a few at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Conference. What the week boiled down to for me was about giving kids time to tinker and learn. I returned home for a few days and then headed to Austin for Thinkfinity training. First site that pops up for me during the investigation time? Yep, more tinkering: Invention at Play.

Now, I’m not going to go to the extremes like some and say the entire day should be letting the kids tinker. There has to be direct instruction for them to build their learning from. What I will say, though, is that kids DO need time to tinker (I say tinker because play just doesn’t cut it even though the kids will think they are playing). They do some of their best learning while tinkering and exploring. Why can we not give them concepts and send them to the Lego bins to come back with a contraption that demonstrates the concept learned? Application is a much higher level than just comprehension, and create is the HIGHEST level of the new Bloom’s chart. We as educators have always said that if you can teach it effectively, then you understand it. Why not let the kids take a concept, create something with that knowledge, and then teach it to the class sharing why it is applicable to what they designed and built?

Does this take time away from direct instruction? Sure, but isn’t the learning at a deeper level allowing us to not have to reteach the concept again and again? Besides, when a student asks about the concept later in the school year, some other student in the class is going to say, “Remember?! That is when so and so built the ____ and_____.” Get it? The kids are making the learning connections and reteaching each other. Sound like real life? It’s getting there. I would say it would benefit our kids much more and prepare them for the Dell’s, Eastman’s, militaries, and Apple’s of the world to hire folks who have spent time trying out things, failing, rethinking, retrying, failing, rethinking, retrying, … You get the picture. Shall we bring up Google’s 20% rule of employment once again? Sounds like it should be a mantra for education (for students and teachers).

Now, one thing that struck me as odd at Constructing Modern Knowledge was my reaction to Alfie Kohn. Many consider him a great mind in education. My less than enthusiastic reaction wasn’t due to the fact that he failed to answer a simple question about his college degree (I asked what it was in and he told me it would take too long to explain. What?!?). It was more on the fact that, while he has great ideas, he fails to recognize how the system works (or more likely refuses to accept). The gist of his argument is that teachers created the system we are in and are the only ones who can fix it.

Well, not exactly. Neither of us can argue the other in the ground over it because it is from opinions based on a number of facts that we draw our views. My view is that teachers did not make the problem. We followed the law that told us to prepare students for tests that the state would be giving students. How we respond to that law controls how we teach in our classrooms. Some lend themselves to a more test-prep environment, while others have a more open structure where students do more authentic work with less worksheets involved.  But, nonetheless, we are following the law here. Not giving the tests is NOT an option if we wish to maintain employment.

Alfie’s view seems to be that if teachers just decide to change, then the system will be forced to change. Uhm, idealist? In my view, yes. Alfie says that those of us who praise our students for doing well on these tests are just adding to the problem. Yeah, I did not like that comment either. Instead, he feels we should ask the student…ready for this… “So how do you feel (or what do you think) about your grade?” My complimenting the student is doing harm while his analyzing them like a psychiatrist is good? Really? I hear his parenting books are built around this same type of concept. I do not think I will be buying or reading them anytime soon. I like the way my wife and I parent just fine. To turn our son into some walking research project just doesn’t do anything for me.

Let me say that Alfie’s views of what should happen in the learning realm of the classroom are pretty strong. I disagree with his view on homework where he boldly states that there has NEVER been research that shows that homework is beneficial. I am guessing these items do not count as research to him (personal note: Glad to see Marzano agrees with me that Kohn misrepresents the research findings). One of those links even researched the research and found that out of twenty studies completed on the effectiveness of homework, fourteen showed benefit while only six did not.  I do want to state that I think a little homework is good, though. Twenty math problems over the same concept is too much if the same can be done in five. If the kid is getting the five wrong, why keep adding to the problem with fifteen more? At the same time, five problems is enough to know whether the students gets it or not.  Reading self-selected pieces of literature for ten or fifteen minutes a night is a good thing. Minimum numbers of AR tests (or points or whatever) per week is not. And so on. You get the drift.  Basically, hours of homework every night is ridiculous, but limited practice of subjects is not. Let’s just not let it take over the family life. No, I have no intention of getting into a debate with Alfie about these things. I am just reflecting on what I heard and my views in comparison. I have a job and family to attend to. Spending countless hours (more) finding ammunition for a debate that will effectively go nowhere is a waste of both of our times.  He is obviously set and secure in his opinion. Same here. Moving on.

But what Alfie says about kids needing time to explore the concepts they have learned (with thinkering and such) is spot on. We learn more when we have that type of time. If we choose the object, then we are going to be more engrossed in the learning that goes with it. Deeper levels of learning, too.

So what did I get out of all of my weeks of travel in July and early August? How about this:

  • Gary Stager’s favorite phrase is, “So what?”
  • His views on ANYTHING can upset anyone with thin skin, but he does it to make you think more deeply.
  • He and Sylvia have a lot of Legos.
  • Lego Robotics make great learning tools outside of the competitions many students enter. Just unstructure the learning around them and turn the kids loose.
  • Alfie Kohn has some good ideas on student learning (overlooking the homework issue here) and some warped views on child rearing (IMHO) and student motivation.
  • He also thinks teachers control the entire education world. That will only happen when teachers start voting en masse.
  • Peter H. Reynolds is one awesome dude. I would love to have him visit our students in person or virtually. He has an amazing talent and a wonderful personality the students and teachers will love.
  • I wish Peter spent a few hours teaching us to be artists even when we think we are not. Release the right brain, folks.
  • John Stetson is one very bright person. It was good to have someone around who knows gear ratios like the back of his hand.
  • Dr. Cynthia Solomon (from OLPC fame) is one of my new favorite people. Ever. She is like a female Gary Stager with a grandma’s personna (don’t be mad, Cynthia). Her quick wit, challenging questions, and wonderful insight make her one great person to be around. Besides, sarcasm befits a Harvard grad.
  • The most important take away is that we MUST give our students more time to tinker and think their way through the learning and creative processes. It will take time for them to get use to the opportunity, but they will hate it if you take it away. Consider it. If we go from no time to even one hour a week, it will be progress.

I look forward to my continuing conversations with the great folks I met at all of these events. Sylvia and I already have a few plans in the works to better prepare our middle school science students through reflecting on their learning in a meaningful manner. I cannot wait to share that project as we move through it. I expect Gary will throw in a few “So what?” ‘s just to drive me forward even more. In fact, I count on it.

Image Credits:
I took them all at the MIT Museum – 1. Great Wall of Ideas 2. Mantra for the Great Wall of Ideas 3. Hologram at MIT Museum

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14 thoughts on “Constructing Modern Knowledge, Tinkering, Homework, and What I’ve Learned

  1. Hi Scott,

    Thanks again for all you contributed to Constructing Modern Knowledge.

    I think it’s a good thing that you had such a strong reaction to Alfie Kohn. I would hope you would view this as an opportunity or provocation to question any and all of the assumptions we make about education. Many of them, like homework, are based on superstition, politics or worse.

    I believe that Alfie Kohn said that his major was interdisciplinary with a thesis. This is possible at a great number of colleges. One of the myths of school is that we’re getting kids ready for college as if all colleges were full of dispassionate lectures in halls the size of arenas.

    I surely don’t think he was ducking your question, even if I might have taken the time to answer it. Surely, you respect his tenacity, intellectual curiosity and ability as a speaker and writer.

    Might I suggest that you and your millions of readers read Alfie Kohn’s books or at least his articles, like this one where he responds to Marzano’s critique.

    I’d like to say unkind things about Marzano, but will refrain from doing so, except to say I would walk over burning coals for my children to be educated by Alfie Kohn if given the choice between him and a slick appeaser like Marzano.

    If you want a real comparison of differing educational philosophies in practice, compare Constructing Modern Knowledge to a Marzano training session.

    Alfie is not alone in questioning the use of praise and rewards with children. Think about relationships you have with your closest friends. Do you bend over and say, “Good boy,” or give them gold stars? If not, why not? I suggest that the use of praise and rewards not only shuts down discussion and controls behavior with diminishing returns due to a narcotic effect, but it is a basic form of dominance.

    I suspect that the basic area of disagreement between you, me and Alfie Kohn is rather it is possible to motivate someone else. A fundamental issue of learning and human development regards who has the agency in the process.


    You are politically active. That’s fantastic!! I sure wish I could convince you that you and your peers have more power to change the world than you believe. This stuff you object to, but do anyway with a heavy heart was created by man and can be undone by man too.

    Nearly every problem in education has been solved somewhere, some even in Texas 🙂


    All of that said, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues with you and I am more than delighted that you enjoyed working with the magnificent team of educators I assembled for Constructing Modern Knowledge. They are among the greatest people I’ve ever me.

  2. The last sentence should have said, “They are among the greatest people I’ve ever met! Working closely with John Stetson, Cynthia Solomon, Sylvia Martinez, Melinda Kolk and Peter Reynolds is one of the great thrills of my life.

    I wish every educator half that blessing.

  3. Scott,

    One more question…

    Do you think your reaction to Alfie Kohn is more based on a disagreement with him or the fact you think his views are unrealistic?

  4. First, the PS – It is the level playing field to measure all kids by, I presume.

    Now, the One More Question – Both. How I treat a child in motivation would never match how I treat an adult since the maturity is so much different and the child still has so much developing within them. We all have an inherent need to please, but children obviously have it more so. If tough love was the way to raise kids, why do we have so many “bad” kids from “bad” homes? Yes, I realize there are exceptions to the rule both ways.

    Alfie is unrealistic. To say that teachers would change everything just by stop administering the test is unrealistic. One, you would never have that kind of consensus among that many people regardless of profession. Two, Fear is one of the most powerful motivators, so the threat of losing a job (especially in today’s economy) would change the minds of many educators even considering it.

    I prefer to use my political activeness to change the minds of those who make the laws. I educate them on the realities of the public school classroom. I educate them on the fact that a standardized test over a content area will not prove or disprove the effectiveness of a 1:1 laptop initiative. I educate them on the realities of their decisions on the student and the parents. Am I wasting my time? Nah. I know I might not see the fruits of my labor in the near future, but I know I have seen the seed begin to bud on several battles. What I do as an individual can affect millions of school kids in Texas in a positive way. That is what I share with other teachers about the political process. If they choose to join me, then great. If not, then that is how it goes. Every occupation has an apathy club. I just don’t choose to join it.

    And as far as Alfie is concerned and his travel to change the education front, I would be more apt to follow when I see him making a concerted, long term effort with the politicians who actually have the power to make the change instead of going around blaming the teachers. If he is doing this, I haven’t read or heard about it.

    I will read what you linked to for Alfie’s replies, but I read much of the research I linked to, and I have to say I agree with the fact that he either misunderstands or misrepresents the findings. I will see how he reacts to that in his reply, though. Maybe not today, but soon. School is back in session, you know. 🙂

  5. Scott – I’m wondering if there are mixed messages to kids based on what you’ve written. You seem to really like the idea of letting kids tinker and explore and make meaning of their environment on their own. But, you also think small amounts of prescribed homework is OK. One mode says “you learn what you want on your own terms”; the other says “you learn what we want on our terms.” Keiran Egan writes a bit about the conflicting aims of the schooling enterprise (see e.g. His argument is not perfect, but I do agree that schools try to do too many things that are inherently incompatible.

    Also, I very rarely defend teachers, but I actually think you don’t give them enough credit. You make them seem like sheep who just do what the law tells them to do and that non-compliance is not an option because it could cost them their job. But, if they really care about the kids and think the standards/accountability movement is bad, shouldn’t they fight that system? Couldn’t/shouldn’t they engage in collective action on behalf of the kids? What if, like other “professions” they had an actual ethical standards to which they were duty bound? And, what if that standard were to act “in the best interest of their students” or to “do no harm to students”? Wouldn’t they then be obligated to fight for the students instead of making sure they don’t lose their jobs?

    Finally, if you don’t like Kohn’s message about education, you’ll probably hate his parenting books. He, along with Dr. Sears, has become the parenting guru of the “left”, standing in stark opposition to folks like Diana Baumrind and Richard Ferber. The former are based in principles of developmental psychology; the latter are based in behavioral psychology. In education, it’s the same way. On one side, we have Kohn/Dewey and the Progressivists who are based in principles of developmental psychology; on the other hand, you have the Traditionalists such as E.D. Hirsch who are rooted in principles of behavioral psychology. My wife and I do everything we can to avoid behaviorally-based approaches to parenting. It’s hard, but it can be done.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Jon.

    I am not sure why the opportunity to explore and tinker in the classroom conflict with homework. They are two separate things (albeit both involve learning styles), and I do mention that homework should be limited. This would give the students time to explore as much as they want at home. Teaching is a multi-faceted action. Different students learn in different ways. Parents desire different things from the same person. Administration has one set of demands while the state and federal government add even more to the mixture. It would be expected that there be a mix in style of instruction. Even CMK08 had lecture, tinker time, and homework (reading), although it is not necessarily a good comparison because the adults in the conference were not held responsible for the learning after the event so they got out of it what they put into it.

    As far as defending teachers, I am one, so I appreciate the defense. But I do want to clarify that what I am saying is that teachers are doing their jobs as prescribed by the law. How I teach will vary from any list of teachers you compare me to, but we all still have the same (state) standards we teach from and same (state) test we ultimately are preparing our students to take. The only “collective” thing we can do to change anything on a large scale is to become politically active in both educating legislators/congressmen and then back it up with educated, consistent voting. To suggest that we collectively strike/boycott just does our students a disservice. They would be the ones who would suffer from closed schools (which would not happen in Texas since it is not legal for teachers to strike anyway). I realize you might not be suggesting a strike, but others might. It is not the best way to approach the change we need even though I feel like it might sometimes.

    Thanks for the warning about the books. I am sure I will avoid them. Not because I don’t like learning about opposing views, but I just have a ton of other books lined up that will drive Gary Stager nuts for me to blog about. 😉

  7. One thought…

    You wrote: “To suggest that we collectively strike/boycott just does our students a disservice. They would be the ones who would suffer from closed schools…” The verity of that statement rests on the assumption that kids learn best in schools. That’s a tricky one…

  8. Too bad your blog doesn’t allow links in comments, I guess that’s Web 3.0 🙂

    Dear Scott,

    I am a big fan of being unrealistic. Can’t realism be a justification for standing still?

    In my lifetime (I’m not that old), adult citizens in parts of America were not allowed to vote. Many of the people fighting this injustice were young folks, called unrealistic by the elders in the community concerned for their careers or physical safety. This was in 1965 one hundred years after the end of the Civil War. Some might suggest that it was unreasonable to wait another 100 years to vote.

    When the TEACHERS of Selma, Alabama demanded the right to vote, other members of the community took notice because teachers were held in such esteem and were known to be thoughtful. This quickly led to Bloody Sunday, the march from Selma to Montgomery and the subsequent signing of the Voting Rights Act shortly thereafter.

    The beginning of the end of Apartheid occurred in 1976 when teachers openly disobeyed an unjust law and STUDENTS led a protest resulting in the death of 23 children and hundreds of others.

    Learning is growth and growth requires change. I’m not sure that being “realistic” is particularly virtuous.

    Can’t change the law? There are still plenty of things you can do. How about withdrawing your own children from the testing? How about exercising your rights as a parent (upheld by Federal court) that you can see the test your child took? How about speaking out against standardized testing? How about not using adopted textbooks? How about talking with neighbors about TAKS? What about writing letters to the editor?

    Check out & & for some additional ideas.

    All the best,


  9. Scott,

    I do not know how to respond to the following statement: “To suggest that we collectively strike/boycott just does our students a disservice. They would be the ones who would suffer from closed schools…”

    The right to withhold your labor is a fundamental human right. WIthout it we are slaves.

    Aren’t you concerned about how children might be harmed by teachers modeling helplessness and blind obedience? What lesson do children learn from teachers acting against their own best interests?

    It was not unions who closed schools across the South in the 1950s and 1960s. It was elected and appointed racist school boards who defied Federal orders to desegregate. How can it be wrong to use civil action to right injustice?

    Aside from the obvious point that the law is not always just or correct, I’m troubled by your comment, “what I am saying is that teachers are doing their jobs as prescribed by the law. ”

    I am not an attorney, but I really think it would be wise to read the actual law and see what a teacher can and cannot do legally. I suspect that one can engage in a great deal less compliance without violating the law.

    It is also clearly the case that teachers make personal editorial decisions regarding the official curriculum every few minutes. I don’t see a lot of teachers arrested for doing so.

    All the best,


  10. Consider these two types of large scale change

    Evolution, which happens very slowly
    Revolution, which happens all at once very quickly, and then suddenly happens very very slowly.

    Anyone can be a part of either. My former fiance grew up in pre and post communist Poland. They are still catching up with what they lived through during their revolution – and the catch up is moving at a seemingly slow pace.

    Cultural Change PRECEDES Political Change. And during the rare time in which Cultural change does not precede it, it must atleast bend to it or break under it (like what happens during foreign invasion).

    What a person says that ‘he has not got enough Power’, he is actually communicating to himself and the world around him that ‘i have given my power away to someone/something else.’

    That is a scary thought (which I think many respondants alluded to). But it is also an exciting thought. It is an exciting thought because it means people can simply stop handing over there power to someone/something else (which is exactly what any political acticity can be at its purest). Any teacher or student or parent knows this intimately because they have experienced (hopefully) someone who especially bent the rules of the surrounding political and cultural structures around them to challenge/foster/teach and/or support.

    This dialogue is a beautiful reminder to me of the magical but mysterious process of evolution that continues to progress at the pace individuals like yourselves set for it by couragously blazing through discomfort, boredom, fear, loneliness, and impatience.

    -Glad to of stumbled upon this conversation

  11. One can work on a politician for many years before their is a paradigm shift. Any political figure short of a dictator (or such) would not accomplish much though even if he supported your perspective. Politics is the art of reflecting that around you. It has also been described to me as the art of the possible. Polticians are reflections of the people around usually. And if they do not reflect certain groups of people, it is diturbingly most often because those groups maintain invisibility (there is nothing visible to the world around them to reflect).

    I think teachers live this. To me, their most powerful image that they have communicated to the world around them is through the voice of a union rep. They have become an employment force in the minds of the world that are only heard united when it comes time to negotiate relevant salary upgrades.
    That is a pretty thin identity to hang your hat on in a public forum, and initiate cultural change.

    This seems to be changing though.

    Some of you seem to be the examples.

    There have always been those special few teachers who have shawn like lonely islands amoungst a sea of darkness throughout history. Their projects and activities have produced “pockets of Love” in all the diferent past education systems. But, they have always been isolated in their shining
    (someone said that quote, and they were much smarter then me for I can’t even remember who).

    This conversation is neat though because all of the sudden, those lonely lighthouses scattered throughout the seas have become focused enough in their energy that they have begun reaching out to each other on a large scale. The product of this can be immense. This is where lasting change happens.

    “Evolution” is happening right now on this thread.

    There is a time and a place where a politician needs a little shove and/or a slap in the face to open his eyes to see what is happening underneath his watch. But when the guy in charge of producing law and policy opens his eyes, he beter see something very real, and something very bright or else he will go back to “sleep”.
    Gandhi’s famous quote rings true here in terms of changing the world: “start with yourself, an then your family, and then your community and then your country, and then you will be changing the world”

    My main question for people involved in conversations attempting to be serious about creating real fundamental lasting change in their worlds is not about how they are dealing with their national politicians, their local politicians, their workplaces, or even their families. It is about how they are changing themselves.
    I hear a lot of thoughts on how to change others, but I am not sure if these attempts will ring true throughout history because they may not ring true through the individuals.

    Mind you, I do not know any of you and have never read anymore from you other then this thread… 🙂 I am just the guy staying up till five in the morning trying to figure out how I am going to gain the guts to “tinker” with some of these ideas at my community centre tomorrow when i go to work…


    …and so the exploration continues

    -Darcy McNeil

  12. Scott et al,

    I loved the “evolution” that is occurring in the dialogue following your post.

    This conversation is neat though because all of the sudden, those lonely lighthouses scattered throughout the seas have become focused enough in their energy that they have begun reaching out to each other on a large scale. The product of this can be immense. This is where lasting change happens.

    “Evolution” is happening right now on this thread.

    Darcy’s comments looks at the evolution as a focus of energy on a large scale. I wonder if it’s not the mind/thought/language (Vygotsky) transactions that occur at the nexus of each exchange that make the energy that causes the evolution and who knows may be the “revolution.”

    I have to add to your comments about the responsibility teachers bear in enacting the testing and your comment about social action through voting. You know the old adage if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. I wonder if we as teachers are part of the problem (have to defer to Alfie and you here) because we are not out there voting out the legislators that support the policies that we find so counter productive to learning. So, in that regard we are not blameless. There have been cases where teachers (individually) have refused to test and have lost their jobs. So it is in the uniting our teacher voices in social action that change can occur.

    Is it that we, like our students, have little time to “tinker” with the system. If that is the case, and it is by design, it’s down right Orwellian. Or is, it that the governing systems have gotten so unwieldy in trying to sustain their power, that they have rained down on teachers a suffocating amount of work that stifles ability to break out of the system?

    Just some thought.


  13. Jon – As a teacher, I am sure you realize that many children will not get the work at home they get at school if the school was closed. Just consider the summer break as an example. How many parents have their kids still practicing core areas during that time.

    Gary – I see links in the comments, so I am not sure what you mean. The ones you listed worked fine.

    As for standing still, I hope you know me well enough to know that does not resemble me in the least bit, so you are generalizing a bit. And thanks for the history lesson. I’ll keep it in mind.

    Texas releases the tests the students take, so there is no need to fight to see it here. My son’s future will not be predicated on the success of a test. He will be well aware of that when he is old enough to test (next year) and testing is still around. As I told you in Boston, you have to pass the test in Texas to get the diploma. Plain and simple. There has been no loophole found that allows students out of that. Does someone need to file a lawsuit? A parent could, but they have not.

    You want speaking out? Just ask any number of state reps and senators if they recall any of my testimony or visits to their offices? I do this regularly when they are in session (every other year). I do this when they are in their district offices. I present to them real learning as our students are doing it in the nature center, in groups, and anywhere outside the textbook and testing realm I can. So, yeah. I speak up.

    I’ll consult my attorney friends about “withholding labor” in Texas. I assure you the answer will be failure to live up to the contract and immediate termination. But I will ask.

    Darcy – Thanks for joining the conversation. I want to clarify that I am not saying I do not have enough power. I have personally affected positive change by single-handedly convincing a legislator to change his vote on a finance bill. Sitting in the House gallery texting him the entire time (and watching him read the messages), watching him vote, then going to his office minutes later in time to hear his chief of staff hang up with the Speaker’s office yelling at him for changing his vote ranks as one of the highlights of my political involvement. I have enough power. My students realize this when a state rep or senator calls me in my classroom during session to gather more information about education issues during floor debate. I have enough power.

    So you will know, we do not have unions in Texas. We have some organizations related to and partially funded by national unions, but teachers do not have unions. And while I trust my association’s governmental relations department to the extreme, I still take matters into my own hands when I think it is a time to battle. They are good. They get me in doors I might not otherwise have been in before. But I fight my own battles right along side them, not behind them.

    Jeannine – Your input is always appreciated. It is the evolution of thought that keeps these conversations going. While I would never even pretend to think I could convince Gary to change his mind on anything, it is worth the time to debate it…for awhile. 😉 When you have your students read the post, feel free to bring me in virtually. I would love to interact with them via Skype or blog or wiki or whatever your choice.

    I agree with the latter part of your assessment of the system. It has gotten to the point where the government CAN stifle the ability of the few to enact change. What the few have to do is stay true to the cause, work to convince others to join the fight, and never give up. It is a lot to ask of a group of people who take as much work home in the evenings as they do during the day and are already strapped for family time. Yet, we trudge forward.

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