Monday, January 27, 2014


Catching the cutting edge 60’s and O.K. Moore

The evidence seems to be saying that there is something broken about the point of writing. In short, at a time of rapid digital change and critical need for creative and inventive composition of all kinds, our children are taught composing with just essay-type text. Within that particular medium, less than 1/4 of them are succeeding. At the same time, Cyberspace and Makerspace settings bring other communication options in which students might be motivated to find success, and  curiously, eventually leverage their text writing skills as well.

Research Evidence 

The research on writing instruction and the abilities of school age children is not particularly thick, but certainly sufficient to establish a kind of rough outline of a measuring stick on public school children’s numbers of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages across grade levels and to report a measurement of effective student progress.
The data indicates that at best students write some ten sentences a week in kindergarten (Kent, Wanzek,Petscher, Al Otaiba,  & Kim, 2013; Puranik, Al Otaiba, Sidler & Greulich, 2014) progressing towards 5 paragraphs a week in middle school (Gilbert & Graham, 2010; Graham, Capizzi, Harris, Hebert& Morphy, 2013)  and 3 pages a week in high school (Applebee & Langer, 2006; Applebee & Langer, 2011). But too many do almost none of even this; just 33% of 8th graders and 24% of high school seniors earn proficient writing scores (Kent, Wanzek,Petscher, Al Otaiba,  & Kim, 2013; NASP, 2008; Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008).  That 24% are proficient helps explain why about 19% of high school freshman finish college. It is a curiously close percentage to "only 25 percent of U.S. public high school graduates have the skills needed to succeed academically in college, an important gateway to economic opportunity" (Gates Foundation, 2014). If not for the almost forgotten 1960’s work of O. K. Moore, there might be little reason for optimism about potential radical improvement.

Such school challenges play out against actual radical improvement in our adolescent and adult league, the Web. Trillions of new types of digital compositions from billions of creators now flood cyberspace. They accelerate the long running and transformational work of the information explosion (Houghton, 2013). In an era of richly varied and often free multimedia software, these compositions combine and re-combine in ever more intricate ways to play an ever more critical and creatively disruptive role in the new digital economy and culture. The basic building blocks of this renaissance are not hard to see on any Web, Facebook, Twitter and nearly any digital site. The fundamental units make up a digital palette defined by at least 10 major elements (Houghton, 2012). How do these elements move from building the digital adult economy  that was center stage at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (Sallis, 2014) to any kind of local place in the school curriculum? If integrated, will they further distract or permanently prevent us from reaching major educational goals of the last 100 years, such as proficiency in basic writing ability? Or can each leverage the other?

O. K. Moore’s work of over 20 years of development demonstrated that with adequate responsive devices, concepts and setting, enormous progress can be made from a very early age, work that complements not conflicts with the writing and other educational goals of the last century. Using a talking typewriter as a kind of puzzle, "Moore brought some pre-school children to the point where they were reading and writing first-grade stories and typing on an electric typewriter with correct fingering-and all in a matter of weeks" (Anderson & Moore, 1960). [My criticism of the educational value of this photo on the left, 1Gilmore, 1965is that with just a bit more effort in the placement of the hand and the colors of the fingernails would have been visible too.]

Unfortunately the expense of some of the elements of his experimental school settings, e.g, $30,000 to $35,000 for the talking typewriter (123, 4),  eventually drained any support for expanding to widespread implementation. 

His initiatives were ending in the 1980's just as the personal computers were first making their cultural appearance. Fortunately it was his concepts and designs that enabled his settings to sing, and the technologies of 40 years later (see photo on the right) can duplicate his learning strategies and tools for a 200th of the cost.

As Moore would often indicate, it was not the technology that was critical, it was the vision of what drove his team's effort. But where's the software that is duplicating and expanding on his ideas with the far superior devices of 2014? We can watch and wait or start somewhere.

Goal Setting

Podcast - Models for Designing Motivation

Now that schools are  beginning their move in North Carolina  to 1 to 1 computer availability with technology significantly more sophisticated for a fraction of the price of the learning tools of Moore's era, Moore's work deserves a deep look and reinvention for meeting the new needs of the digital age (Moore, 1980). However, this may grate a bit against the top down culture dominating factory elements of secondary and higher education. His work meshes well with the deep educational thought of student centered Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky, Friere, Piaget and Papert. It is as equally pointed and current as Psychologist Peter Gray's thoughts on natural learning settings for learning to read.

Some of the elements of autotelic software show below as selected examples in the spreadsheet table, designs that make new digital media composition accessible for even preschool and kindergarten. However, baseline data on measuring our progress with 21st century composition is nonexistent (graphic below). There is as of yet no way to make comparisons and measuring points for media across grade levels that is comparable with the data now available on written text. For example, for video composition, what is the kindergarten level equivalent of 10 sentences a week? The lack of this knowledge is hardly surprising; schools are just beginning to get the funding to fully join the other professions in going digital so that such instruction, achievement and measurement would be possible. The time to take such a baseline is now; much research needs to be done.

See the animated chart below. Do you have the knowledge to measure such abilities as effectively as we now measure writing? If not knowing is something that bothers you, how can we solve this problem?

If you were to graph your own literacy progress in digital composition, at what grade levels would you drag each of the column heights above? Grab an Excel spreadsheet version of this chart and define your own starting point for professional development. What will it take to create a "responsive environment" of such media for your own learning and those you teach?

To make a spreadsheet column graph of your current development with digital literacy, download the linked spreadsheet above, and follow the directions in the screencast on the left. (hosted at YouTube; click its full-screen button for best viewing).

[The video below is the same uploaded file as above, but uploaded through's Video Upload button. Notice its markedly lower quality in comparison with the version above that was uploaded directly to YouTube. Where appropriate, go with YouTube.]


Obviously, the columns of this spreadsheet represent the digital ability to read and compose different kinds of media that appear on the cyberspace screens of digital devices, from smartphones to desktop computers. However, one aspect of these columns of digital literacy is hidden from recognition; there is a transition underway that is extending cyberspace to the physical world of "maker space", from creations that end up on display screens to a surge of digitally driven creations that are physical objects in the real world. These objects increasingly contain sensors and actuators that communicate with other objects for automation purposes or alert notices for manual direction by their owners and managers. 

Such maker space designs do not have to involve "rocket science" creations. The framed example below shows live data from a set of sensors in series of small greenhouses for my year-round gardening in the mountains of North Carolina. The sensor data will be used to control actuators that manage temperature, light levels and watering, the beginnings of a greenhouse robotics system that is as relevant to home winter gardeners everywhere as to school gardens largely abandoned during the summer months.

Makerspace is not just a concept. Makerspaces are also physical places that range from manufacturing tools that have shrunk to fit on an office desktop to "community centers with tools", using computers and computerized manufacturing tools that continue to fall in cost and size while simplifying ease of use. An explosion of these neighborhood makerspaces (MakerMap; 2) from office spaces to libraries is underway in communities around the world. 

These centers are as open to families and children's design groups as they are to adults. Makerspace participants use the columns of computer programming, robots, sensors and 3D CAD/CAM software and tools for fabrication such as laser cutters and 3D printers. The video below is one simple example. 
Tinkercad creations could be fanciful (as above) or just as easily be highly practical (see below), as with the the high schoolers who used 3D printing to make a prosthetic hand for a 9 year old for under $10 or the gardening example of this next video below, posing a solution to standard seed starter containers.

Every bit as important as the emerging technology is the nature and design of the learning community within these centers. The vast depth of knowledge from the Web, the ready availability of digital devices for study and creation and a collection of learners who like to share is recreating the point of Moore's 'responsive environment' within which so many found success. This educational direction is but one of a long line of learning practices stretching back to the lights of Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey,  Piaget and Papert. Makerspaces can create places within or outside of schools which provides a setting and alternate agenda where students and teachers can think differently about the educational process.

The Charge for Change

 The learner-centered, learner-initiative nature of makerspace and cyberspace communities represents the seed, a break with current school practices, and the hopeful prototype for the inventive activity that communities will also expect someday of public schools.

Updated 2/18/2014 version 1.7


Thursday, January 16, 2014


At the Heart of Creativity

As financially starved public educational systems in the U.S. slowly turn to find culture's new digital direction, there is a deeper shift happening. There is a shift in the world's awareness, a shift from a linear (graph on left) to a nonlinear view of how things interact and develop. This shift requires an intuition about exponential behavior for which it has so far demonstrated considerable ineptitude (Bartlett, 2005). Why is it that nonlinearity tends to create surprise at the speed in which apparent slow growth becomes dramatically different?  Surviving, let alone thriving, may be more connected to solving this problem of understanding than we yet appreciate. 

So little of the patterns of this now well defined logic and mathematical knowledge (Houghton, 1989/2009) is widely known.  In fact, such ideas are central to motivating the application of the public's newly found and growing interest and struggle with the teaching and practice of the pinnacle of higher order thinking, creativity (Hodgson, 2012; Bellanca, Fogarty & Pete,  2012). It is worth noting that creativity, does not stand in isolation; it requires the cumulative underpinnings of the other higher order skills.

A small step in the appreciation of exponential behavior might begin with a change in its iconic representation.  Exponential thinking is often expressed as an upward rising curve, the classic hockey stick graphic of the population curve. Even that is often truncated, cutting off the long boring space-consuming reality of the slowly rising line of the graph. A mere 7 million prior years are missing in the graph on the left. Instead the more visually interesting is generally shown, the last sharply upturning few percent of a long period of development (graph on right). If we change the scale to show the full range of the horizontal 7 million years, the upturn of the graph looks insignificant.
The trunk of the elephant may be more interesting, but it is certainly not fair to cut off the elephant's trunk and present it as representative of the entire animal. We are too impressed by height and not enough by length. We can show one or the other well, but not both well in the limits of our display frames. Our bias leads us to just show the seemingly more dramatic curve (graph on the right). One result is that the intuitions that form from reading such graphs fail to appreciate how long significant change can take to happen.

Returning to the long hockey stick graph above, if one were positioned at the year 1700, and had accurate data for the previous several hundred years it would seem logical to conclude that the past tells the future. What mathematical education has apparently provided many is the idea that change is additive. If you add something this year, 2, to the number from last year, 8, the result is 10 and the pattern would continue, 12, 14, 16 etc. The result is a straight-line graph and simple prediction about a situation somewhere in the future. Exponential change multiplies not adds. What has become common in the faster paced 21st century is the idea of doubling. Multiple by 2 each year and the skips between numbers grow rapidly. If you multiple 2 x 4, you get 8, which times 2 is 16, which times 2 is 32, times 2 is 64. Each interval of change is significantly greater than before. This is still a simple math but one that leads to very different thinking about the future.

If given the choice of a million dollars, or doubling an initial dollar every day for a 31 day month (R x 2 or Rx2), choosing the million dollars would result in almost a billion less than the choice of starting small but multiplying it multiple times. Actually writing down the numbers to see their increasingly larger jumps in size is an educational event worthy of your time.

Beyond simple math, change also becomes radically different when an invention changes the multiples. When the right special thing happens, however seemingly minor it might be at the time, radical change quickly builds. In the case of the human population graph, human power is capable of .1 horse power (hp) almost indefinitely and 1.2 hp for very short bursts. James Watt's moment of creativity stretched the capacity of existing steam engines to a reliable 10 hp in 1771, opening door to further invention that would become 1,000 times greater in a century ("horse power", 2014). This change was a major factor in birthing the industrial age whose machines enabled one person to do the work of an increasingly larger number of workers. It was this result that enabled the creation of food and goods to supply a population explosion shown as the sharp turn in the graph. We have a problem of scale, and of needing to shift the scale to see the results from afar, a need to go beyond magnifying and framing just a portion.

Such exponential curves though are just a "slice of the pie", not the whole pie, they are a magnified segment of a larger scene. This can miscommunicate a certainty about unchecked growth and misrepresent the larger view of the reality of larger nature of nonlinear systems.  The larger problem is that the smooth and simple exponential curves above are too misleading. Among sustained living systems, there is seemingly no real "end", just change. In reality, what goes up, must come down, and up, and down and the degree of change happens dependent on the degree of interaction in the system. The graph on left was created by the interesting properties of RX(1-X). 

It is also possible and useful to change perspective once again and now see the red-lined graph on the left as if above a basketball floor, representing the movement of the ball across the floor. The behavioral patterns of creativity have more to do with the artful dodging of basketball players running the ball down the floor to a goal.  The more interesting, creative and valuable the system, the more the concept of an average as useful data is a lie, a severe distortion of reality and largely devoid of predictable power.

Perhaps it is helpful to think of it in a very personal way. If we apply that linear logic to classroom grading, we've been misrepresenting our species for a very long time. Or looked at another way, to the extent that a grade average represents the reality of a person's performance, straight A's or straight F's both raise questions about learning and imply a failure to work within Vygotsky's optimal zones of learning. Such consistent scores should be read as the absence of a successful setting for the learner to reach the full capacity of what it means to be a creative human being. The middling C average amidst widely fluctuating grades may represent the most promising learner of all. Creativity requires quite of a bit of experimenting.

There are other intuitions and metaphors we could lift in praise. We say to skiers that if you have stopped falling down you have stopped learning. Edison required a long line of failures in order to find success with his lightbulb. Try finding value in calculating Edison's average.

Whether considering the optimal behavior of people or social and biological systems, or the physical universe around us, nonlinear behavior dominates. To better appreciate the many trends driving 21st century life (Houghton, 2013) , it will be to our long term benefit to give proper respect to the deep nonlinear and consequently unpredictable behavior that dominates our world.

With such respect comes a deep understanding of the value of creativity in responding to and adding value to such a culture.

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