It is indeed an honor to speak at this conference and share my experiences
and expectations with such an august audience. My qualifications for this conference
could be based on my two decades of work with technology and kids, the work
I did in the early days of school laptop computing right here in Australia or
the fact that I am the parent of two teenage girls. I originally suggested that
this talk be titled, Im not sure why Dale Spender hates me,
based on my experience as Ms. Spenders human piñata at an MLC dinner
and the ironic fact that she went on to quote me extensively in one of her books.
The theme of this conference, girls and technology, implies a problem. Neither
girls nor technology are the problem. If a problem does exist, it is with the
men and women commonly identified as educators and to a lesser extent, parents.
It is the intellectual timidity, professional indolence, imagination gap and
what Seymour Papert calls, idea aversion that prevents us from meeting the needs
of all digital age children. The greatest number of victims of such idea aversion
may be girls since for reasons real and imagined. The prevailing myths that
girls dont like computers; girls need different technology; girls should
learn to criticize technology; girls have adequate access and ample role models;
school leaders are qualified to make technological decisions; and schools should
be used as social sieves lead to the creation of pedagogical decisions ultimately
detrimental to girls themselves.
Microcomputers and the global information infrastructure offer unprecedented
opportunities for expanding the learning community and for children to engage
with powerful ideas. The choice is between an increasingly irrelevant system
of schooling or the realization of John Deweys dream for a learning environment
in which children can achieve their full creative and intellectual potential.
Computational and communication technology may be used as an intellectual laboratory
and vehicle for self-expression or as a tool for oppression. The first option
makes schools better places for teachers and kids to learn, the second will
hasten the demise of schools monopoly on education.
It would be a shame if we missed the chance to revolutionize the learning environment
if we were simply ignorant. It would be a sin to ignore the remarkable possibilities
demonstrated right under our noses in order to preserve some quaint notion of
19th century education. We know how the combination of elevated expectations,
respect for epistemological pluralism, a dash of creativity and ubiquitous can
produce a learning renaissance because weve seen it in schools a tram-ride
The most important educational technology innovation in the past two decades
began at Methodist Ladies College in 1989 when David Loader, a giant in
girls education, committed his school to the proposition that every child
should own a personal laptop computer. This was never intended as a stunt, experiment
or project. David noticed that computers were getting more portable and affordable
while anticipating that such a bold investment would pay great dividends for
educators concerned with making schools what James Britton would describe as,
more hospitable to the intentions of children.
Six years before the World Wide Web, Loader shared these provocative thoughts
with his school community.
Apparently the sun cannot rise in present schools
Unlike David Suzuki who dismisses computers as information processors, we see
knowledge not so much as being processed but as being constructed in the classroom.
John Deweys observation that the content of the lesson is the less important
thing about learning, is relevant (here). - David Loader
Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is
smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesnt know, better at finding
and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent,
than he will ever be again in his schooling - John Holt
This was the shot heard round the world. Soon after laptops were delivered
to MLC, impressive student LogoWriter projects inspired teachers to rethink
their notions of curriculum, assessment, scheduling and most importantly, the
under-appreciated learning abilities of their students. Humanities teachers
demanded long uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish interdisciplinary collaborative
projects. French teachers ventured into the uncharted waters of maths classrooms,
boatloads of educators from around the world visited Kew and the idea of Marshmead
Steve Costa, was patient zero the first teacher in history to teach a
class of girls each equipped with a laptop. Steves extraordinary teaching
abilities coupled and willingness to share his talents with colleagues has made
his classroom one of the most visited in the world. Not only did Steve Costa
possess the confidence and courage to invent the future, he has demonstrated
a remarkable focus over the past thirteen years. He has not been seduced by
the latest technological fad or gimmick, but has continued to help students
maximize the potential of their minds and computers by remaining committed to
the hard fun of programming in Logo (MicroWorlds). Steves work continues
to inspire me. What he and his girls have accomplished is remarkable. If there
were any justice, Mr. Costa would appear on an Australian postage stamp. He
is arguably one of the most important teachers in this nations history.
I am delighted that Steve Costa and David Loader will keynote a conference in
Maine, USA this August between Alan Kay, the inventor of the personal computer,
and Seymour Papert, the educator who predicted thirty-five years ago that every
child would have a personal computer. Maine has built upon the foundation laid
by these educational giants by passing a law requiring the provision of an iBook
computer and 24/7 net access for every seventh and eighth grade student in the
This however is not an all-male history lesson. Many female teachers at MLC
and Coombabah State Primary School in Queensland helped the world rethink the
role of computers in schools. Merle Atherton, a quiet humanities teacher two
years from retirement, embraced Logo and laptops with enormous enthusiasm and
inspired countless colleagues to enjoy thinking about thinking. She was given
an in-school sabbatical so she could work in classrooms alongside
Joan Taylors world-class Community Education department played an enormous
role in the organization of holiday computer camps, global conferences and professional
opportunities for teaching staff. The holiday computer camps provided parents
with a creative child-care service and benefited the school in two important
ways. The first benefit of the camp was as a strongly suggested
prerequisite to attending the school as a new student. Four days of project-based
computer use, the arts and a bit of sport provided adequate preparation for
new children to succeed when they joined existing classrooms. Another benefit
of the camps was that members of the teaching staff served as counselors. More
expert teachers would lead robotics or Logo classes and less experienced
teachers would apprentice. The casual nature of the camp allowed teachers to
gain new knowledge and develop increased levels of consequence. Apprentices
often replaced the experts in subsequent camps.
Community education also provided a venue for teachers interested in learning
basic computing skills or finding out how to use computers for administrative
tasks. This way the school could dedicate its professional development resources
to using computers in ways that reformed education and benefited kids.
Merle and Joan are unsung heroes in the history of school computing.
I remember bringing some student projects back to the USA from MLC. When I shared
them with one of Americas most accomplished computing-using teachers he
remarked, Oh, thats what it looks like when the kids have time.
The ability to learn and work anywhere anytime is an obvious, yet important
rationale for laptop use.
MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling
was open for discussion and reconsideration. I spent as long as three months
at a time at the school with a brief to do anything I thought would contribute
to educational excellence. I worked with teachers and kids in classrooms, consulted
with staff, created the holiday computer camps, built a LogoExpress system to
facilitate telecommunications from home and within school and had constant access
to the principal. When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality
and the rhetoric proclaiming the schools commitment to constructionism,
the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive
residential professional development sessions, fondly remembered as pyjama parties.
After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot
be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. Do as I say, not
as I do, will no longer cut it.
Not all was perfect, even during these halcyon days. I remember needing a small
bit of electronic tinkering done while at MLC and saying, Ill just
get a girl to solder this for me. My colleagues looked nervously around
the room before someone said, our girls dont solder. Concern
for gender equity apparently ended at the point where students use tools, learn
about electronics or perform actual service to the school community. The school
musical theatre production hired professional musicians to provide accompaniment
rather than utilizing talented student musicians. Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier and
others write elegantly about the benefits of students assuming more responsibility
for sustaining the intellectual culture and accepting responsibility for the
operation of their school. We need to work harder
Soon after the pioneering efforts of MLC, two other groups of laptop schools
emerged. The marketeers were schools more concerned with the marketing
and publicity benefits of doing laptops than with reforming schools
while nearly every other school found laptops in its future by inertia. The
marketers and their neighbours lacked the vision of
the pioneer schools and found that they could differentiate themselves by embracing
less empowering uses of computers and cynical assessment schemes like the International
Baccalaureate. Some principals became more concerned with schmoozing hardware
vendors and rising software version numbers than with educational innovation.
I am most disappointed at how little impact the laptop volcano has had on the
structure of schooling. I assumed ten years ago that any educator with common
sense would recognize the need for new school environments incorporating multiage,
learner-centred, interdisciplinary learning. The creation of fantastic alternative
learning environments at Marshmead and Clunes are evidence of a failure to bring
about substantive school reform in traditional schools. The need for a school
to build a new campus in order to be more learner-friendly suggests the institutions
incapacity for self-correction.
Perhaps I was naïve, but in the early nineties I had the following expectations
for todays schools.
The easy stuff
Schools would feature:
Basic productivity tool fluency
Electronic publishing of student work
Electronically-mediated parent/teacher communication
Teachers using the computer for personal productivity/school
Every child and teacher would have a personal computer
We would stop referring to computers as technology
I.T. would cease to exist as a school subject
The hard stuff
Kids would be:
All laptop owners
Writing powerful computer programs
Freely communicating online
Conducting scientific investigations with probeware
Publishing in a variety of convergent media
School leaders would be:
Using computers in personally powerful ways
Supporting the imaginative use of emerging technology
Participating in the professional development they
impose on teachers
No longer using computers to quiz or test students
The really hard stuff
Principals would no longer be able to get their photo
in the newspaper just for standing next to a kid and a computer
School would be learner-centered and educators would
be able to articulate what that means
School leaders would spend less time making computer
deals and more time collaborating with other learners
Students would be able to program and construct their
own software tools
The supremacy of curriculum would be abandoned &
no one would speak of delivery
School leaders would join the community of practice
Kids would collaborate with other kids and experts
around the world
really hard stuff
Multi-age interdisciplinary "classrooms"
would be widespread
External forms of assessment would be replaced by more
effective humane forms of authentic assessment
Kids would spend less time in school
Schools would stop viewing the needs of children as
an impediment to the enterprise
There would be far fewer technology coordinators in
The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-nineties allowed schools never particularly
committed to constructionism to embrace a vehicle for reinforcing the primacy
of curriculum and instruction. Despite the unrivaled power of the net to democratize
publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration, it has been
assimilated by schools in the name of curriculum delivery and the status quo.
Throw in the incredible expense of networking and the disasters caused by the
unprecedented authority given to the non-educators running school technology
infrastructures and the results were bound to be disappointing. It seems to
many that the golden days of Australian school computing may be sadly behind
I invented Murrays Law to describe the current state of school computing.
Murrays Law combines Moores Law and Murphys Law to state
that every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processor
power of today and do things twice as trivial with those computers. Things need
not be, as they seem. I will share glimpses of the opportunities some of your
schools may be missing during this presentation.
MLC was clearly on the right side of history. Rather than give long-winded educational
rationales for portable computers I suggest that the reason your school should
provide laptops is because its training wheels for the adults in the school.
It is inevitable that every kid will have her own full-featured portable computer,
although it may not look like a laptop. Embracing laptops gives your teachers
a few years to prepare for that eventuality on their terms.
I am not a cyber-utopian. I want children to have the widest possible range
of high-quality experiences regardless of the medium. However, computers do
offer new things to know and new ways to know new things. They can be intellectual
prosthetic devices that enable people to learn and express themselves in unprecedented
ways. For at-risk students the computer may provide the first opportunity to
experience the satisfaction of having a wonderful idea.
For girls schools, the computer offers rare opportunities for young women
to invent their futures. Such schools will be successful only when they embrace
constructionism, computers and put the needs of learners ahead of those held
by curriculum designers. The women charged with the education of girls need
to model the most fearless, creative and intellectually-rich use of computers
if they are to inspire girls to be their very best.
Myths We Need to Overcome
#1 Girls Dont Like Computers
Girls use computers in all sorts of ways ignored by schools. They use the
technology to sustain and establish relationships via instant messaging, a technology
needlessly prohibited by many schools. They publish web pages about bands and
television shows they love. They share music and rip MP3s. Girls even play video
games when those games are more playful and less violent.
We need to look for opportunities to build software environments and computer
activities that engage girls. Many more peer-to-peer products need to be developed.
#2 Children Use Computers in School
Some of your schools have gone to great expense in order to produce glossy
brochures exclaiming, We have computers! What may been news in 1979
is no longer newsworthy. That race has been won. What do your girls DO with
It is not your job to sort children, to decide which ones will have certain
opportunities. It is your job to ensure that all children are exposed to the
widest possible range of possibilities within a supportive caring environment.
Unless every girl has the opportunity to explore robotics, programming, MIDI
composition, digital filmmaking, multimedia web publishing in a culture that
values these activities, we cheat them of a thorough and efficient education.
While computers should
be transparent across all disciplines, it is outrageous
how few comprehensive secondary schools offer computer science as a serious
course of study. Few girls even know that this is an option as avocation or
vocation. IT or ICT classes are just dressed-up computer literacy and outdated
business studies courses. They lack rigor and dont reflect the state of
According to a recent study conducted by the Australian government, 44% of all
children spend less than 40 minutes per week and 66% of all children spend less
than one hour per week using a computer in school.2
Similar levels of inadequate access would be found in the USA as well. The major
implication of this limited access is that many girls will just not use computers
at all. Scarcity is a major obstacle to use. It is just not worth it for a girl
to fight for an extra few minutes of computer time. 1:1 laptop computing certainly
helps overcome this problem.
#3 Girls Need Different Technology
The myth that girls that girls need pink technology is unfounded.
They need more imaginative examples of how computers and related technology
might be used. Girls dont dislike LEGO robotics and programming. It is
just that their mothers and grandmothers do not buy LEGO for them. Their mothers
dont buy much software either.
Girls dont need purple bricks. They do need project ideas that dont
result in trucks. Time and time again we have seen that girls are quite imaginative
competent programmers and engineers when inspired to engage in such activities.
Girls play computer games in ways that attempt to push the boundaries of the
rules to manipulate them. Boys study the rules and try using them to
get ahead, to vanquish opponents. I have seen many young girls play
with the genre of Expanded Books
by clicking on words in silly sequences
in order to get the computer to say funny things. Their willingness and desire
to manipulate systems should make girls the best computer users, not the most
Since it is increasingly difficult for companies to earn a profit producing
software for children, even less is created for girls. That which is created
for girls insults their intelligence and merely pretties up either trivial tasks
like coloring or is related to petty chores like storing addresses or diary
There have been a few notable attempts to produce software for girls, but these
efforts have borne little fruit. In the late 1980s, SEGA assembled all of their
female engineers, artists, authors, programmers and game designers in one building
in the hopes that all of this girl power would inspire the creation
of hit videogame software for girls. It did not.
Brenda Laurels company, Purple Moon, was dedicated to producing software
for girls and spent unprecedented funds on research into gender play patterns.
The problem was that by the end of the research there was no money left to make
quality software that offered compelling experiences for girls. I remember my
daughter calling Purple Moon technical support to complain that her interactive
adventure game crashed. She was informed that it didnt crash, it just
didnt really have an ending. The last hope of Purple Moon was actually
based on a terrific concept, a sports game for girls. The company recognized
the rise in popularity in soccer among girls and had an opportunity to develop
a soccer computer game for girls. Unfortunately, their soccer program told the
story of getting ready for the big match, but never actually let the girls play
All is not bleak. Innovative examples of game software, such as Dance Dance
(DDR) for the Sony PlayStation,allows players to dance on a physical
pad and interact with the screen. Girls love DDR and play it until they lose
weight and their dance pads wear-out. They just do so at home with friends.
The arcade DDR machines are played primarily by boys who engage in a less playful,
more competitive version of the activity.
Perhaps the least understood development in software for girls was the enormous
late 90s success of Mattels Barbie Fashion Designer
Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, this software title sold more copies
than any other piece of girls software ever. The industry observed
the breakthrough sales of this product and wrongly attributed its success to
the fact that Barbie was on the box. This simply is not true.
There has been unsuccessful Barbie software on the market for nearly twenty
years and there were other Barbie titles next to Fashion Designer.
why did FD
sell so well? I would argue that its commercial success had
far less to do with Barbie than with constructionism. Barbie Fashion Designer
allowed girls an opportunity to use their computers to make something cool
in this case clothes you could design, print and dress your doll in. Constructionism
trumps even Barbie. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.
#4 There is More to Technology than Notebook Computers
It would be a great mistake to suggest that the latest PDA gizmo or thin-client
is superior to a full-featured notebook computer. Many of these devices are
intended for professionals with a specific job to do. Kids need better computers
than most executives. I am quite unimpressed with those who can turn word processing
and web surfing into a nine-year scope and sequence chart.
School computers may be used to do work and to learn. Work consists of writing,
calculating, researching and presenting information. Learning consists of being
immersed in the constructive processes with a reasonable chance of leading to
the construction of a larger theory or bigger question. Microsoft Office is
OK for doing work. MicroWorlds Pro is superior for learning.
These days, computers are popularly thought of as multimedia devices,
capable of incorporating and combining all previous forms of media - text, graphics,
moving pictures, sound. I think this point of view leads to an underestimation
of the computers potential. It is certainly true that a computer can incorporate
and manipulate all other media, but the true power of the computer is that it
is capable of manipulating not just the expression of ideas but also the ideas
themselves. The amazing thing to me is not that a computer can hold the contents
of all the books in a library but that it can notice relationships between the
concepts described in the books - not that it can display a picture of a bird
in flight or a galaxy spinning but that it can imagine and predict the consequences
of the physical laws that create these wonders. The computer is not just an
advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates
and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts
with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have
taken them on our own.3
Those who make claims that schools should use such devices rather than notebooks
probably have little experience using computers in creative ways and are probably
more concerned with cost than benefit to children. We learn by constructing
knowledge in a social context. Such construction is dependent on full-featured
computers capable of making all sorts of wondrous things and sharing those things
with others. Serendipity should be the goal. It is arrogant and misguided to
put too much stock in what we think kids might do with technology. I embrace
the wondrous inventions that enliven classrooms and stimulate even greater inquiry.
Software is another cause of confusion. Some educators are impressed by false
complexity, software loaded with confusing features, tools and menus. The logic
suggests that hard-to-use, expensive, or corporate software must be superior
to the silly stuff developed specifically for kids. New need not mean better
and pretty need not mean deep. We should endeavor to use as few software packages
as possible, if of course those packages are sufficiently flexible, so that
students may develop fluency. MicroWorlds use pays dividends after students
have ample time to allow the software to become second nature. Jumping from
software package to software package may impress adults, but it will cheat students
of the benefits paid by fluency.
#5 We Have Good Role Models for Girls
One of the most effective ways to learn is through apprenticeship. Children
learn a great deal, with little effort, from spending quality time engaged in
authentic activities with adults. These adults inspire, teach and motivate through
their example. It makes sense that if we want girls to be competent engaged
computer users, then the women in their lives need to be competent engaged computer
users. Most of the women known to children are teachers and yet they are among
the weakest users of computers in society.
The critical shortage of teachers with demonstrable levels of computer fluency
makes it difficult for girls to see the value of computing in their reflection.
Carol Gilligans research suggests that during the early years of adolescence
when girls begin to shape their identity, they also begin to see women marginalized
by society. Teachers have a responsibility to be much better high-tech role
models, computer clubs for girls need to be created and a public campaign must
be waged to attract girls to hobbies and vocations involving computer technology.
#6 Girls Should Study Technology Criticism
Dale Spender once told a room full of educators that schools need to teach
girls to criticize technology since for a number of reasons, including that
women were being routinely raped and molested online. This hysterical
proclamation was made prior to the widespread availability of the World Wide
While we should be cautious to ensure the safety of all children, we do not
need to raise irrational concerns. Reactionary criticism of technology
(whatever that means) is like criticizing the weather. You will lead a rather
While it may be useful to be knowledgeable of the benefits and consequences
of emerging technologies, criticism requires little intimate knowledge of the
subject and renders the critic a spectator. Girls cannot afford to remain spectators
in the use of the most powerful instruments of science, art and commerce ever
invented. If girls wish to lead happy productive lives they will need to learn
to cut code, to master the instruments of so much influence. We must move beyond
hoping that our daughter will marry Bill Gates to a day in which our daughters
compete successfully against him. This is a necessity if computers and software
are to ever become more attractive and convivial for the majority gender.
#7 School Administrators are Qualified to Make Important Technology Decisions
School administrators like the marketing benefits associated with standing
next to a group of kids and a computer, yet few have ever done anything imaginative
with a computer. Unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion have been
placed in the hands of technology directors who often have little knowledge
of or concern for the learning needs of children. This abdication of responsibility
has cost schools billions of dollars and squandered all sorts of good will and
opportunity to innovate.
#8 Schools are Designed to Sort Children
American schools are being destroyed by the over-emphasis on higher-meaner-tougher
standards and the quest for high-standardized test scores. California spends
nearly $2 billion (US) annually on the administration of a testing scheme non-aligned
to the curriculum and which cant even seem to be scored correctly. Teachers
are prohibited by law from looking at the test and receive no more than a score
reporting on each childs results yet are expected to improve practice
based on this score.
Some schools spend as much as eleven weeks per year in external assessment in
addition to the countless wasted hours of test preparation. Recess is being
eliminated in some schools. Science, social studies and the arts have disappeared
to make way for more literacy and numeracy based on a pedagogy of yelling louder
more often. Students are being tortured by this nonsense and great teachers
are being driven out of the profession. Schools are deemed failures and susceptible
to takeover while children are kept from progressing to the next grade based
on norm-reference tests requiring 50% to fail. This is the cruelest of hoaxes
perpetrated on children. The publisher of Californias exam includes teacher
instructions in the event that a student vomits on her test booklet.
One principal recently committed suicide as a result of her schools test
These tests serve no productive purpose and are cheating children of a joyous
purposeful learning experience. Citizens of conscience must oppose this wholesale
deprivation of educational excellence at every opportunity.
Australian independent schools do not have to play this game, yet they do. Complain
all you want about the Department of Education, but your schools have the power
to reject or at least influence, the trajectory of these accountability schemes.
This is not the case. In the years since I began working with Australian schools,
local girls schools have not only capitulated to the VCE, but have embraced
the odd little International Baccalaureate. Say what you like about American
imperialism, but even we dont have the audacity to dictate your curriculum.
The greatest tragedy is that local independent schools not only lack the courage
to fight this scourge, they actively promote their scores in a most cynical
attempt to gain market advantage over the competitors.
I spent some time looking at the web sites of local girls schools and
was sickened by an animation of a cute little girl with text scrolling over
her announcing this schools test scores. Perhaps the advertisement should
say things like, Our school makes more girls cry and nauseous than any
other school. Or our girls crushed the dumb girls down the street.
How about, our school wasted more precious resources on cheap marketing
stunts than our competition?
I often feel like the Great Gazoo when I attend educational conferences. If
you dont remember Gazoo, he was the Martian who inexplicably visited Bedrock
in the Flintstones. Terms like set tasks, packets of work, VCE scores, marks,
CATs, outcomes or league tables are the words of Dickensian shopkeepers, not
people who love children.
Girls deserve schools that do everything possible to create nurturing environments
capable of honoring their emotional, intellectual, spiritual and creative needs.
If we believe that children are a blessing entrusted to us, then what we
do should be self-evident. The choice of educational direction is not related
to education party, region or grade level. We must choose between a belief in
constructionism, the notion that learners are central to the learning process,
or instructionism, the idea that we can improve education by teaching better.
Better teachers will undoubtedly create rich environments in which students
feel safe to take risks, explore their curiosity and share their knowledge.
However, it is impossible to learn for anyone else no matter how hard you try.
Constructionism gives agency to the learner, instructionism to the system/curriculum/teacher.
Our goal should be less us, more them.
Schools need to do a better job of engaging all learners, listening to them
and building upon their natural expertise, knowledge and talent. We need schools
in which children are engaged in authentic, personally meaningful tasks in conjunction
with adults who can inspire them to greater heights. Abundant computer access
and high expectations for the myriad of ways in which computers may be used
as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression must be the norm.
Adults, particularly women, have a major responsibility as role models who develop
and use sophisticated computer users. We need to think less of female students
as precious Victorian-era dolls and more as competent citizens who can compute,
solder and take responsibility for their own learning. They deserve no less.