Literacy Beat asked colleague Sam Patterson to recommend an influencer from the Maker Movement. Sam responded immediately and asked Sylvia Libow Martinez to join Literacy Beat’s influencer post series. Sam writes, “Sylvia’s passion for empowering young people to change the world is matched only by her amazing understanding of how to create learning experiences that guide students to discover how the world works and the power they have to influence the world. Sylvia works in schools around the world to help teachers use hands-on experiences to support discovery-based learning. Sylvia helps educators realize how new technologies can help us achieve the classic goals of progressive pedagogy.” Here are our questions for Sylvia and her responses.
What tips or advice might you offer to teachers who want to be advocates for learning through literacy in the digital world?
I think that it’s important for teachers to keep an eye on what’s happening outside of school, not just in the digital world, but in the world at large. The Maker Movement, for example, is a trend that is going to change the world, possibly as much as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a trend that speaks to how people learn and solve problems using new technology-based devices and networks. The implications for education are immense, and watching the Maker Movement grow and become more mature can give educators insights into issues that the children they teach today will grapple with in the future. The rise of desktop manufacturing will eventually change industries worldwide – children with access to 3D printers and laser cutters can start to understand this today. The Internet of Things is in its infancy with such things as cars that text you when they need an oil change, but the implications are immense as more and more sophisticated technology becomes available. Why not put these technologies into student’s hands today so that they will be informed participants in control of these technologies, rather than passive consumers? Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab says, “Bio is the new digital.” New advances in synthetic biology and programmable organic materials are going to change the world just like silicon chips did. How can we justify continuing to teach biology and chemistry as if this isn’t true?
Educators may feel hesitant in the face of these new technologies, because they weren’t around when they were in school, so it’s not always obvious that they belong in school. When Gary Stager, my co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and I lead professional development, we ask educators to take off their teacher hats and put on their learner hats. When teachers open themselves up to becoming learners again, it opens doors to new ideas and practices in the classroom.
I believe that literacy with technology is not simply using technology to read, write, or share information better. I have a much broader definition of technology literacy that revolves around making and doing. Just like traditional literacy, technology literacy should help students make sense of the world around them. It should allow people to express their ideas through mathematics, simulations, programming, and making physical things. If we open up school to the world that is continually changing, this definition of technology literacy will help students and teachers understand where they fit and how they can make the world a better place in the exciting days to come.
What significant event in your life changed the focus of your work?
Right out of college I was an aerospace engineer. I mostly worked with people who were a lot like me – good at school, mathematically and logically oriented. But when I moved to software game development, I met different kinds of engineers and programmers. Most of them did not have formal computer science degrees, many had not finished college, and a few had not even finished high school. Many of them were told – as early as middle school – that they couldn’t learn computers or take advanced science classes because they were “bad at math” – and “bad at math” typically meant they were bad at doing what teachers told them to do.
I can assure you these folks were not “bad at math” – the math involved in making computer games is beautiful and fascinating yet we teach none of it in school. They were some of the most original thinkers and problem-solvers I’ve ever met.
As I started to specialize in educational games, I found that learning about learning fascinated me – and I earned a masters degree in education. The more I learned, the more I wondered why we are we so intent on math and science curriculum that favors kids who have that magic blend of compliance and smarts (like me), but relentlessly weeds out kids who don’t fit in that narrow slice of humanity. My colleagues who became game developers in spite of being rejected by school were the lucky ones, but there are thousands of children every year who slip completely out of that famous leaky STEM pipeline – people who could be the innovative problem solvers the world needs – but instead we bore them to death, insult their intelligence, ignore their gifts, and drive them away.
A couple of years ago I started going to Maker Faires and learning more about the maker movement. I found a brilliant combination of technology, whimsy, engineering, art, and science. But talk to makers and you will find that many are just like my gamer friends for whom school was not a good place to learn. How sad is that?
And when I talked to parents at Maker Faires, they would say things like, “look at my kid, programming, building robots …. I can see they are learning. But every night I have to pull them away from that and we cry over worksheets. I don’t understand!”
And these parents are right, it’s NOT UNDERSTANDABLE that we have turned science and math into worksheets. We know this is wrong. We know how learning happens – it happens when children have amazing experiences that challenge them and reward their natural curiosity about the world. Piaget said, “knowledge is a consequence of experience” – and that’s echoed by every educational giant from Maria Montessori to John Dewey to Seymour Papert. Why have we strayed so far from these insights?
So my mission today is to help schools find ways to bring hands-on, minds-on activities into the classroom that steer children towards the powerful ideas found not just in STEM fields, but in every subject area. Our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, is an attempt to situate the powerful new opportunities found in the maker movement in good educational practice and pedagogy.
Sylvia is co-author of “Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the Classroom”, a book advocating authentic learning using modern technology, real world design principles, and hands-on experiences. The book has been hailed as the “bible of the Maker Movement in schools.” Sylvia is the principal advisor to the Stanford University FabLearn Fellows, and served on the NAEP Advisory Board for the upcoming Technology & Engineering Literacy Test. She is president of Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, which publishes books for children and educators on authentic learning with modern technology.
Sylvia is a keynote and featured speaker at national and international education and technology conferences in areas ranging from the Maker Movement in education, student leadership, digital citizenship, games in education, project-based and inquiry-based learning with technology, gender issues in education, and new advances in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) education.
For the previous ten years, Sylvia was President of Generation YES, a global non-profit evangelizing technology-based student service-learning. Prior to this, Sylvia was an executive at several software and video game publishers, overseeing product development, design, and programming, spearheading hundreds of software releases, video games, and educational websites.
As a Senior Scientist and electrical engineer for Magnavox Research Labs, Sylvia designed high frequency receiver systems and navigation software for the launch of the GPS satellite navigation system. She holds a masters in educational technology from Pepperdine University, and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from UCLA.
Sylvia Martinez (blog, videos, articles): http://sylviamartinez.com
Invent To Learn book and resources for “making the case” for making in the classroom: http://inventtolearn.com
Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Educator Institute: http://constructingmodernknowledge.com
Constructing Modern Knowledge Press – Modern books for modern learners: http://cmkpress.com
Sam Patterson, author of Programming in the Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code, is Maker/STEAM coordinator for Echo Horizon School in Culver City California. MyPaperlessClassroom.com is his award-winning blog and ongoing journal of his teaching journey.