Project Lighthouse in Thailand: Guiding Pathways to Powerful Learning
by David Cavallo
David Cavallo is a research assistant under Professor Seymour Papert in the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Laboratory. Prior to MIT, he was in charge of systems and development for the Harvard University Health Services. There he designed and managed development of systems and applications for the delivery and management of health care. Prior to that he was a principal software engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Artificial Intelligence Technology Center. In addition to designing and building knowledge based systems for businesses, he led the effort on building intelligent learning environments.
Project Lighthouse in Thailand is an ambitious attempt to utilize computationally rich environments to highlight new paths to learning. Although the project includes many different situations scattered throughout Thailand and has goal of providing concrete examples of powerful learning environments in the digital age, the project does not pretend to be a blueprint for education. Rather, the intention of Project Lighthouse is to create a small number of pilot projects, each of which represents a more radical change in learning conditions than could be envisioned within the structure of an existing school. Each project is different enough to make a real contribution. We aim to use these projects to provide educators and the public with models that can break their mindsets about what education must be.
We began conceiving the project in early 1997. A group of Thai industrialists, educators, and government officials had come to believe that the considerable economic success Thailand had achieved in the previous decade could not be sustained unless the educational system could help develop learners who could function productively in a global, knowledge-based economy. They further believed that trying to incrementally reform the school system would take too long, cost too much, and still leave them, after perhaps twenty years of effort, with the same problems the rest of the developed world has now. They sought radical improvement and results. Thus, they approached Seymour Papert and his group at the MIT Media Laboratory to help design and implement such alternatives. The MIT group, together with the Thai group under the direction of the Suksapattana Foundation and funded primarily by the ThaiComm Foundation, began planning for the project.1 Prior to the development of this partnership many directions for educational reform had been explored. There were many ideas about how to begin. Naturally, most started with some aspect of reforming school. Suggestions ranged from placing some computers in each school or adding a computer course curriculum to slightly more radical ideas. But each suggestion had to fit within the existing format of school, with its established culture, habits, schedules, measures, courses, texts, and way of life. The proposed education reform could be summarized as adding computers into an already crowded mix. There also was the tendency to proceed broadly, across the whole country.
The new collaboration broke with these ways of thinking. While proceeding broadly across the whole country was admirable in its goal for equity, it was problematic: if the primary goal was to show what was possible, then going deeply was more important than going broadly. We decided that the best path for eventually reaching everyone in powerfully meaningful ways was to initially place a large amount of resources in very few sites with the intention of showing deep change. These concrete models then would serve as exemplars to induce broad changes. The group also decided to focus some of the early attempts on those for whom, for the most part, school has failed. This included those in rural or poor economic areas, and with children deemed at-risk.
School, like any large institution, has developed its own culture and its own grammar (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). Like most institutions, school becomes resistant to change. School meets reform by rejecting it or assimilating it, changing the reform more than changing itself.
Rather than re-designing a new school from the top down, we employed a kind of biological metaphor, trying to create many small examples, and examples within examples. In this way, each pilot site was to be different from each other. Even different groups within the same pilot site could differ. The hope was that many new and unexpected ideas and activities would emerge, better than what could have been planned beforehand. The sites would examine and cooperate with each other, so that the good ideas could spread and each site could adopt what they like based upon the local situation.
We hoped that from a strong core set of principles, beliefs, and practices, many new developments would take place. What was centralized was the philosophy. What was decentralized was the practice and decision making among the learners. The participants would meet periodically to discuss, assess, and share ideas. A core set of Fellows (now called Constructionists) would take on the research, mentoring, and dissemination responsibilities. As of this writing, there are five pilot sites in Thailand with quite a number of additional sites due to come online in 1998. Three sites are in urban areas and two are in remote and impoverished rural areas. While in some sites, everyone is working together, in other sites, there are several distinct groups of students working as independent units. Each of these sites is developing uniquely. Even within a site of multiple groups, each group is developing uniquely. Indeed, this flexibility over standardization is a goal and a successful result within Project Lighthouse. Just as we believe that learning proceeds more deeply and effectively when individual learners are free to pursue their own interests, so too can each site develop more productively when free to conform and adapt to the learners and their situations. In this article I will not describe each site, but will draw salient elements from various groups among them.
The theoretical framework for the design of Lighthouse projects draws upon three lines of thinking about education, extending and combining them in a unique integration.
The project presented here is based on experiences that show how computer technology can be used to create conditions for radically new ways of learning characterized by:Giving students greater control over the learning process with the result that they learn to take charge of their own learning.
The concept of Constructionism as developed by Seymour Papert and his group at MIT has provided a powerful, concrete basis for thinking about and creating learning environments. The idea as expressed by Papert is:
We understand “constructionism” as including, but going beyond, what Piaget would call “constructivism.” The word with the v expresses the theory that knowledge is built by the learner, not supplied by the teacher. The word with the n expresses the further idea that this happens especially felicitously when the learner is engaged in the construction of something external or at least shareable ... a sand castle, a machine, a computer program, a book. This leads us to a model using a cycle of internalization what is outside, then externalization of what is inside and so on. [Seymour Papert, Introduction, in Constructionist Learning, Idit Harel, ed., MIT Media Lab, 1990]
Constructionism proved to be an idea that people could grasp and use as a basis for guiding activities. Often people know what they do not like about existing learning environments, but do not have any practical concrete principles on which to base action. People knew how school often left students listening or watching others, or performing tasks of no interest and little value. Constructionism provided a lens through which Lighthouse participants could think about other ways of organizing learning environments. Through the teachers’ experiences in workshops based on Constructionist ideas, they were able to re-think what they would like to do themselves and with the learners. Constructing meaningful artifacts and projects would be the core activities within Lighthouse.
Each site begins by using MicroWorlds Logo to help develop technological fluency among the participants, both staff and students. Technological fluency, as coined by Seymour Papert, is the ability to use technology fluently, in the way that one is fluent with language so as to express thoughts, create artifacts, communicate with others, and realize ideas (Papert and Resnick, 1991, Cavallo, 1996). This basis immediately moves this project into an area quite different from most other projects utilizing technology in education. Rather than only using computational objects to help people perform a given curriculum better or faster, or to teach technology as a goal in and of itself, technological knowledge and fluency is useful as a facilitator and means of access to broad areas of learning and doing.
Just as textual literacy opens previously inaccessible worlds of knowledge, so too can technological fluency open further worlds via expressing and collaborating in shareable, computational, dynamic, interactive environments. When writing text, one is free to express oneself as one pleases, in one’s own ways, based upon one’s own experiences and interests. Through this expression, one comes to understand the world, create a unique identity, and communicate and collaborate with colleagues with whom one’s thoughts and expressions resonate. Programmable environments like MicroWorlds Logo provide a new means of expression - construction and communication - and demonstrate how computational technology need not be limited to changing parameters in predetermined programs or merely surfing for information.
In a world where what one needs to know changes ever more rapidly, developing the ability to learn to learn and apply this learning in constantly developing domains is all the more critical. This then is the underlying basis for Project Lighthouse.
Another unique feature in Project Lighthouse is using an Immersion Learning environment as a basis for facilitating broad and deep development of technological fluency. The term “Immersion Learning” is borrowed from the context of learning a foreign language, where “immersion” means a more or less close approximation to “living in the language” as one might do by living in the country where it is spoken. Participants in the projects live in a culture of technology where there is a deep knowledge about, familiarity with, and passion about building and applying technology towards accomplishment of personal, group, or social goals.
The other major aspect to this endeavor is project-based learning. While this term is in vogue in educational circles, we practice this somewhat differently than most. Rather than having pre-defined projects, designed to last a limited amount of time, with the aim of delivering a predetermined bit of knowledge in a pre-determined way, projects within Lighthouse are student initiated and can run for as long as there are good ideas to pursue.
Examples to date include:
Since two major goals within the project were to work with people of widely varying ages and to have all of them develop technological fluency by constructing many projects, we used Logo as the primary language with which to develop fluency. In this way, everyone would share a similar basis from which to grow. In our early use of the Internet, as people were placing projects on the web we encouraged them to use whatever software they desired. For the most part people used the Microworlds plug-in for Netscape, as they were the most familiar with that. In addition to MicroWorlds Logo, we had office automation software, and applications for graphics, photos, and multimedia. We found that as people developed fluency first, moving from one software package to another was not so difficult. Beginning with Logo, and developing real projects, provided a basis from which going to a variety of other applications was more straightforward and successful. In past projects we had found that it was typically difficult for learners to begin with specific product applications and then be able to leverage from that into other packages.
PROJECT LIGHTHOUSE BACKGROUND
Although there was strong agreement on the need for the project and the rationale behind it, there was tremendous trepidation regarding its ambitious design. Almost every Thai commentator believed our effort would be futile if we worked with the existing teaching corps, and if we did not begin with only new students not yet affected by existing schools. There were strong reservations about the passive nature of Thai students, about the poor quality of Thai teachers, particularly in poor and rural areas, about the capability for changing the methods of teaching. People did not believe that Thai students would take to an open-learning situation since they were so accustomed to being passive learners. Teachers were accustomed to lecturing without question or discussion, and then testing rote knowledge. Although people desired change, they were worried that it would not be possible without years of re-training, or perhaps a totally new teaching force. How could teachers who had little education themselves, and no experience in learner-centered classrooms, possibly perform to the extent required in such a different, technologically rich setting? Indeed, many wondered whether the teachers could learn the technology at all, let alone use it for teaching and learning.
However, less than one year’s work has dispelled the basis for these doubts. Thai teachers and Thai students have already accomplished tremendous things. Although we have just begun and aim to do much more, already we can view this project as a major success.
To help the teachers develop, as well as to learn about the situations in order to have a better feel for the activities and organization, we planned for three sets of two-week preparatory workshops, for six weeks in all. In the interim periods between workshops, the teachers were to build projects in MicroWorlds Logo themselves, and ask questions from the workshop facilitators via email or fax. Discussions and readings would continue throughout. The requirement of six weeks as a minimum length for workshops was based on our experience with two projects grounded in the same philosophy although enacted in a very different situation. In the summer of 1995 I led a six-week program for low-income youth in rural Maine in the United States (Cavallo, 1996). The project ran from 9:00 until 5:00 five days per week for six weeks. None of the youth had any prior computer experience. None of the youth had done well in school. Indeed, some had already flunked out or dropped out. Yet, by working in an immersion environment, beginning by developing technological fluency first using MicroWorlds Logo, then adding LEGO/Logo, and ultimately StarLogo, almost without exception the youth accomplished tremendous amounts.
Most importantly, they developed vastly different and improved attitudes towards themselves as learners and as intelligent people. They also fundamentally changed their relationships with each other and with their communities. Based upon the success of the summer program, the host organization, the Training and Development Corporation (TDC) bid for and received the charter to operate a brand new Job Corps Center at the site of the former Loring Air Force Base in the far north or rural Maine. TDC received the award in the late summer of 1996 and began operating the Loring Job Corps Center of Innovation (LJCCI) in January 1997. The LJCCI was an attempt by TDC to utilize a technologically rich environment, and the ideas of Constructionism, technological fluency, immersion learning, and project-based and enterprise-based learning to provide a dramatic improvement in vocational education. However, although the LJCCI was ostensibly freed to experiment and go beyond typical Job Corps requirements except those dealing with safety and assessment, many in the management of the Center still clung to the traditional culture and would not make the changes to which they had committed. This meant that teachers only received at most two weeks of workshops, with the majority only about six days. The result was that people learned to use MicroWorlds Logo somewhat, and LEGO/Logo very little, but did not have the opportunity to re-think how the technology could be used in a non-traditional school-like way. The technology is one important part of the overall plan, but knowing the syntax of a computer language is not the goal of the workshops. The real goal is to re-think how we approach learning, and to begin to practice how we can use technology to create more learner-centered environments. Thus, the staff at Loring did not have the time to develop their thinking or gain enough experience, and although there were many individual successes, the overall hopes have not yet been realized. As two weeks of workshops was insufficient to overcome the “grammar” of school, we decided that six weeks of workshops were the minimum required in Project Lighthouse. The first workshops were in the Chiang Rai Non-Formal Education (NFE) center. Three separate departments divide administration for education in Thailand. The Bangkok Municipal Authority has responsibility for Bangkok. Formal Education within the National Education Ministry operates the traditional schools. The Non-Formal Education department of the Education Ministry in Thailand serves several functions. Compulsory schooling Thailand only recently was increased from four years to nine (and this year may be increased to twelve). Many people only attended for four years and then left formal schooling for various reasons, primarily economic. When people with little formal schooling wish to return to take courses, or to study to take the sixth, ninth or twelfth grade school examinations for certificates, they study though NFE. NFE also provides vocational education, teaching traditional trades, and makes education available in rural and remote areas where there is no formal school.
Project Lighthouse decided to work within Non-Formal Education as one of the original four pilot programs for a variety of reasons. First, there were quite a large number of NFE administrators, staff, and site directors who believed in Seymour Papert’s approach.2 They actively worked to create pilot projects within NFE that would run independently and be free to attempt radical changes and potentially demonstrate deep learning results. Non- Formal Education already had a tradition of somewhat student-centered work: classes were discretionary and the work was typically self-paced. In many villages, it was already the case that when people decided to learn something, they would only then form a group to study it within NFE. The population served by NFE is typically from the lower socioeconomic strata. Finally, in the past NFE was viewed as not providing very high quality education. Thus, improvements in this sector would be of great benefit to Thai society.
The teachers spent eight hours per day in the workshops, five days per week for two weeks at a time. While this is not unusual for a workshop, the idea was that they would extend this access to their students not merely for two weeks, but for the entire time they would spend in Project Lighthouse (potentially years). With one computer per student and the computers available at all times, this was a true immersion environment. People could use technology as an expressive tool, as ubiquitous but more powerful than a pencil. They could use the computer not only as a thing in itself but as a tool in a wide variety of activities. The students, if they chose, could not only do math and science with the computers, but also history, art, music, video, writing, reading, and whatever else they desired.
At first the teachers were somewhat disconcerted with having no exact instructions to follow as a recipe. They clearly were unaccustomed to open-ended assignments in school settings. However, as one by one the teachers began working, they watched each other, incorporated what they liked into their own projects, and the initial reticence quickly faded.
We still worked with an English language version of MicroWorlds in the first workshops. As most of the teachers had studied some English, this worked out adequately3. Even though people were working from the English language version they all wanted to make projects of a more Thai look and feel. One made a little travelogue of Thailand, where you could visit historical sites as you drove your turtle around a map of the country imported into the project.
We began the workshops doing some turtle geometry in order to become familiar with the language and commands. We also introduced making simple animated stories. Of the twenty teachers attending the workshop, only two had prior computer experience beyond using a word processor, and those two primarily understood computer setup and repair, not programming. However, everyone quickly joined in and created projects. Although each one created projects, they often worked in groups, taking turns leading and helping each other. In this way knowledge quickly spread through the entire group of participants. The first set of worries that Thai teachers would be incapable and unwilling to work with computers quickly was set aside.
Several of the teachers still were responsible for classes during the day and thus missed part of the workshop. One with teaching responsibilities made little progress the first two days. However, on the third day, his project was far advanced and many of the others were asking him for help. When I inquired what had happened, the others told me that he was returning after dinner and staying until two or three in the morning working on his project. This effort had so inspired the others that all of them were now staying through the night. Thus, this dispelled concerns about teacher capability and motivation.
During the workshops, we introduced more programming concepts, always in the context of examples and projects that might be of interest. Typically, we ran these minisessions either after observing people’s work and seeing general misconceptions or to introduce new ideas that would help people accomplish something important within their projects.
Having the topics emerge from the work of the students was critical to concretely grounding the programming ideas in the context of their work and needs. As they worked on projects of their own choosing, the workshop facilitators would go around the room, observing their work, asking questions, or responding to the questions of the participants. At various intervals, the participants would demonstrate their projects and talk about their ideas. This helped spread their ideas through the whole group. We also held many discussions about learning, teaching, and school. These discussions often focused on powerful personal learning experiences and how they most often occurred outside of school. We contrasted the nature of the personal experiences with the organization of school. We then explored whether these differences needed to exist.
One striking point emerged in every case: even though all of these teachers went to an education college, they had never discussed learning, only teaching. The focus was on material and how to convey information about it. While no doubt this is important, it is odd that the learner is left out of the picture. Especially now with the focus on learning to learn, bringing the learner back into the equation is more critical than ever. The teachers all expressed relief and joy about this common sense revelation and all began using introspection about their own experiences as learners as a guide for what they would want to do with their students.
The effort in the northeast of the country, in the area around BuriRam, highlights the difference in Project Lighthouse from the typical conception of school. Before beginning work in the area, Papert and Marina Umaschi Bers, a researcher in Papert’s group at the MIT Media Lab, engaged the residents from each village in a discussion about if they wanted computers, if so why, and finally, if they had them, what would they do with them.
One of the most striking experiences was in a village where the village leader replied that they wanted to gain more control over their lives, and they believed that certain uses of the technology could help them. They told of how a brown fungus had developed on their rice, and they did not know the cause or the remedy. They also recounted how the cattle had developed a swelling on their hips. These factors led them to believe that somehow their water supply had become contaminated, perhaps by chemicals previously placed into the soil. They did not know how to deal with these problems. They were reluctant to call the local authorities for a variety of reasons. Primarily, they felt that every time they had called them in the past, the outside experts would come in to the area, make some determination not only without consulting the local villagers but also without even bothering to explain how they came to their diagnosis. The experts merely gave some new chemical, or gave the cattle some inoculation, and left without helping the villagers to understand the problem or what to do about it. They were suspicious that this was the cause of the contamination. They wanted to end this cycle of dependency and lack of control by gaining access to information and gaining control of the situation. They viewed competency with the technology as a plausible path to this control.
Later Savalai Vaikakul, an MIT Thai student in Papert’s group, Alice Cavallo, and the author led a technological fluency immersion workshop in BuriRam. The workshop was attended by the sixteen people from surrounding villages4.
The village leader who had described the agricultural problems attended, as did several other elders, accompanied by teenagers from their villages. Our goal was to have at least two people from each nearby village. We began the workshop showing how to turn on and operate a computer. We did not want to spend much time with preliminaries thereby delaying the moment when people could begin to perform meaningful work. We knew from discussions that many in this workshop had left school after only a few years because they did not feel it added anything to their lives. We did not want to lose them as well by taking days to show arcane aspects like file directories and DOS commands
In this way, beginning with MicroWorlds programming was essential to quickly producing something real and satisfying so that interest was maintained. Creating animations, or pretty designs with turtle geometry, was sufficiently captivating to enable people to begin and continue to work. The fact that it, to at least some degree, is personally expressive helped, as each one could make something of their own choosing, reflecting their own aesthetics. We did not have everyone follow our examples, although the pervasiveness of following instructions was something we had to continually contend with. When we gave examples it was not meant to be taken as, “Everyone do exactly this.” However, this is what people were accustomed to.
People did manage to learn enough about working with personal computers to function properly. They also managed to build their own programs during the first day. There was considerable joy and satisfaction among the participants over having created their own projects, primarily aesthetically pleasing designs from geometric commands and the use of colors. Especially salient was the feeling of mastery over a high technology device, the computer. This was particularly empowering and liberating since many aspects of school and modern life left many of these people feeling powerless and alienated. They had a feeling of accomplishment that they could program and control this device. With this spirit they moved on to attempting to use the technology under their control for projects to their benefit. Moreover, accomplishing this quickly, without months of prerequisites, was critical so that they were not further alienated.
The development of work in BuriRam took two interesting paths, highlighting some of the major objectives within Project Lighthouse. Both paths depend upon developing technological fluency in order to use the technology as an expressive tool to address problems of particular interest to the individual people and their communities. One path was to learn to address the agricultural problems. The other was to assist people in operating their local factories to help make them more efficient and effective. Both efforts highlight releasing learning from the boundaries of something children do while isolated in school during school hours with little real life relevance, to something that is deeply embedded in the life and interests of the children and their neighbors, and can be applied to real social issues.
Imposing a preconceived program from without, no matter how well intentioned, suffers from many problems. Not the least of the problems is that it places the people in the position of objects on which to act rather than as active agents who do act. It is this use of power that underlies many problems in traditional school (Bourdieu & Passeron 1977, Bowles & Gintis, 1976). Traditional school does not merely transmit information about subject areas: it also plays a socialization role. People develop opinions of themselves, their intelligence, their selfworth, their relationships with others, both peers and elders. They develop connections to or alienation from each other and their communities. They develop their roles and make determinations on their places in their societies. Naturally, life in school is but one part of these determinations as much of life occurs outside of school. But the socialization role of school, although potentially positive, also can be detrimental when robbed of relevance, or when people are placed into passive and submissive roles without the possibility of participating in determining the activities they will do and what roles they can have within these opportunities.
In this area we collaborated closely with the Population Development Agency (PDA). PDA is a non-governmental organization developed by Khun Meechai Viravaidya of Thailand first to combat over-population, which in the seventies was a major problem for the health and wellbeing of Thailand. After successfully addressing that problem, PDA turned its attention to matters of sustainable rural development, including changing farming methods to be environmentally friendly and supporting clean industrial development in rural areas5.
Before any introduction of technology, we engaged the residents in discussions about what they felt were the key issues in their lives, and what they felt they needed to address. Almost every idea revolved around issues in access to clean water, and its use in household and agriculture. BuriRam is described as having two harsh seasons, flood and drought. Either there is too much or there is no water. This results in many villagers only being able to grow one rice crop per year, barely enough to provide a meager living for the year, not enough during the bad years. In our discussions they quickly realized that having access to water to grow an extra vegetable crop could double their yearly income.
The villagers and the participants from Project Lighthouse began devising ways to collect and maintain fresh water. We designed ways to create reservoirs in order to maintain the water to irrigate their fields. We designed dams to harness the floodwaters and connect to pumping systems for irrigation. We also re-designed agricultural field layouts to take advantage of the topography of the terrain to better support multiple plantings of a variety of crops. Lastly, we began developing decision support systems to guide diagnosis and treatment of problems with pests and fungi in the cultivation of rice. As in other Logo projects, the goal of the decision support systems was not so much for the benefit of the others, but to help the developers themselves formalize and strengthen the knowledge required.
The villagers used MicroWorlds Logo to map out, plan, and design their potential solutions to the various problems. The graphics capabilities of the software facilitated the visualization of the situation and remedies. Making this concrete and manipulable was critical towards successful comprehension. We even used digital cameras to photograph the areas, which we then imported into the MicroWorlds projects in order to improve accuracy. A true benefit of using computational technology as opposed to other media was enabling the proposed solutions to be shareable, dynamic, contextual, interactive, and easily alterable. Perhaps most important was that the solutions were a powerful expression of their own ideas. There is much mathematical knowledge required to determine such problems as the amount of water needed to grow for a certain area of particular types of crops; how deep a reservoir would be needed to hold that water given particular rates of evaporation and drainage; the amount to pay for the work and how much benefit they might receive in return. The ideas of drawing maps, drawing to scale, and using Cartesian coordinates were foreign, even if they had been covered in school. The vast majority of those working on the projects had left school after only four years. The children who joined us likewise had either quit or were totally alienated by their school experience. The math they had learned in school was not a useful tool. However, everyone quickly mastered the underlying mathematics in the context of the problems they had chosen.
More important than the gaining of mathematical and scientific knowledge, was the change in attitude from passive resignation to active engagement. In the beginning of the project, many people stated that they did not know the math needed, that they were not capable of attempting such important and complicated work as constructing dams, that they could not even attempt to address these issues. As they gained competence with the technology, they gained confidence in themselves. We firmly believe that this confidence, along with their newfound tools of technological, mathematical, and scientific fluency, will serve them best in the long run.
There had been previous attempts at building dams but each time the effort had failed. It had been initiated from outside the community, performed by outsiders, and not only had not worked but more importantly had contributed to sapping the residents of their self-esteem and community control. Active collaboration among the residents was one of the essential lessons learned when the World Bank sponsored the introduction of water pumps into rural areas. The rationale behind their introduction was that the water pumps would not only help health matters, but would also leverage many other gains as people would spend less effort walking, carrying and hand drawing water. This would free them for other more productive activities. However, even though everyone needs and appreciates having clean water, the water pump project did not go smoothly, actually failing in a relatively large proportion of areas. At some sites people refused to change routines to use the pumps, often because they were poorly located. At other sites they fell into permanent disrepair. At other sites they were simply vandalized and cannibalized for parts.
The primary factor for successful implementation of the water pump project was the early participation of the local residents in the full-range of decision-making about the project. Although the technology itself was the enabler, agency, ownership, local factors, and full partnership and participation counted for more than the technology itself, even with a relatively simple technology like water pumps. If these are critical success factors for simple technology, they could only be more so for more complex technology like computers and telecommunications.
The strong influence of Paulo Freire in this work is quite evident. In Freire’s early work with rural Brazilians in the northeast part (and poorest) part of the country, he and his colleagues had tremendous success developing textual literacy among the people where previous school-based attempts had virtually failed. He too engaged the participants in discussions about what were the most critical issues for them before engaging in any teaching or learning activity. Once the critical issues were identified, connections were made through these issues to many bodies of knowledge.
Freire was one of the earliest critics of a “banking” approach to knowledge, that is, that knowledge is acquired and stored away in little boxes to be retrieved when wanted, and that the role of school is to transmit those pieces of knowledge for storage (Freire, 1972). However, although much more humane than traditional school, many educators who have adopted some of Freire’s ideas still remain embedded in the grammar of school. Thus, Freire’s approach becomes something to be used to teach preconceived formulations of knowledge in traditional subject areas and curriculum. Our approach in rural Thailand returns to the origins of Freire’s work. We leave the idea of preconceived subject areas and curriculum and using the critical issues as a pathway to teaching them. Rather, we hope to develop multiple fluencies, such as technological and textual, and continually apply them to the issues of communal and personal importance. The communal process of analyzing the situation, conceiving activities, designing them, enacting them, reflecting upon them, determining what was of value and what was not, debugging them, and beginning the process anew, not only helped elevate the populace from a passive position but also provided important practice in critical thinking. This too is what is required in the modern economy. That rural villagers, previously left out of the modern economy, could begin to successfully practice this in an extremely short period of time is a critical result.
Indeed, Freire’s original work and ours show that the villagers’ previous lack of educational results is not due to any lack of intelligence. On the contrary, it is due to the methodology imposed. Once freed to use the familiar as a mobilizing force to understand and work on the important, people can learn and accomplish a tremendous amount in an incredibly short period. The true value of this type of work is not just that people learn to read, or to do math, or any subject, although of course these are all critically important. Rather it is the change in their relationship with the environment. They are no longer viewed, or view themselves, as unintelligent, passive, or victims. They develop to be thoughtful actors. The empowerment within this framework is dependent upon but ultimately more important than any particular learning of a school subject.
In BuriRam, in addition to the work in villages, a second track was designed to assist the Population Development Agency (PDA) in their efforts towards developing environmentally clean, sustainable economic development efforts. PDA primarily set up a number of shoe factories, assembling shoes for Italian makers. As the standards of these shoe companies were quite high, and the education level of the villagers quite low, there were problems both with efficiency and quality. The villagers did not know statistical quality control methods. Nor were they accustomed to systems thinking, debugging, or other tools of modern industry. Thus, quality problems were high, throughput was low, and the hierarchy was higher, thereby reducing profitability for the village cooperatives. To attempt to address this, once the villagers had become somewhat fluent with MicroWorlds programming, we introduced working with LEGO/Logo. With both LEGO/Logo and MicroWorlds Logo, the villagers working in the shoe factories began to model the operation of the factory, looking for ways to make the processes more efficient. They could model the processes with Logo, and build LEGO models of alternative factory layouts. They also gained a greater awareness of the system as a whole, rather than focusing on just their individual local role. While it is still early to look for results, the cooperative management is very optimistic about the benefits. This is similar to the experience of Jose Valente and his colleagues, who also have performed such work in Brazil.
6 At a meta-level, the process of learning and doing in these examples is very powerful, and a key within Freire’s work as well as ours. The process of analyzing what are the critical issues in their own lives, doing projects to produce positive impact on these issues, reflecting upon the actions and results, and beginning the cycle anew provides practical experience in critical thinking. It also places the participants as the active agents in their world, rather than passive receivers of the actions of others, applying this critical thinking in whatever other aspect of life they choose. They also become adept at transferring their experience of approaching and dealing with problems to other areas of interest. They are building case experience and thinking about how things apply and in which ways.
CHIANG RAI YOUTH HOSTEL
One other effort within Project Lighthouse bears mentioning. Project Lighthouse initially contained four pilot areas. They were to create a new kind of learning place within Non-Formal Education (NFE) in urban centers, to address the village situation, to help provide teacher and staff development to school systems and Non- Governmental Organizations, and to address educational and social issues surrounding at-risk children. In Thailand, prostitution and child prostitution in particular has been a major problem. Many efforts are made, some with the noble assistance from Non-Formal Education, to both try to prevent children from entering prostitution or to help rehabilitate them upon leaving. A major drive within this is to provide education and retraining to children and young adults so that they have other viable options. Many times these children are from rural villages and have had only a rudimentary education. They have very few other prospects for earning a livelihood. Many are orphans, or are from villagers that have a history of selling children into prostitution, or are attempting to find other alternatives after spending some time as prostitutes.
Until now, the job training offered these children was quite rudimentary. This included skills like sewing, craftsmaking, and other low-wage, manual labor skills. The first group that began working with Project Lighthouse was comprised of twenty teenage girls living in a hostel in Chiang Rai. They already were attending the NFE Center there that was participating in Lighthouse but were all working towards their sixth grade certificate, even though some were as old as eighteen. However, prior to Lighthouse their education was traditional and their vocational training was simple.
Not surprisingly, this did not provide much disincentive to prostitution. Moreover, working with these girls presented many other problems. For the most part, Thai was not their native language as the girls came predominantly from hill tribes with their own languages, customs, and history. There was little incentive for the girls to learn much of what is in the standard curriculum. The teachers encountered many problems familiar to most teachers. The students did not see much benefit in learning history, or science, or even to learn to read. Thus, they did not expend much energy. In addition, since the class sizes were quite large, it was logistically extremely difficult for the teachers to provide enough individual attention to help motivate and communicate with the students. When this group of girls joined Project Lighthouse, they began with immersion work on building technological fluency. After a few months of work within Project Lighthouse, we arranged a special workshop led by MIT Media Laboratory Professor Gloriana Davenport and assisted by her students Philip Tiongson and Arjan Schutt. The outward purpose of this workshop was to do multimedia projects in electronic photojournalism. The students would use digital cameras to collect photographs that they would load on-line, and then write narratives to tell their stories. They would load this onto the Web for all to see.
7 In order to become accustomed to the technology, they experimented with the cameras, taking pictures of each other, and writing their autobiographies. While doing this, they discussed technical aspects of photography including aspects of lighting, composition, and how images were created, both digitally and with film. After gaining some fluency with the technology and the ideas behind creating narratives, they divided into five groups of four for a major project. Coincidentally, the young women were practicing a dance performance that they were to give in an AIDS village nearby. Professor Davenport used this as a reason to link the efforts. The girls agreed to do their big project around the life stories from the people in the AIDS village. This became a unifying theme for much of their learning. They not only wrote very compelling stories about these people and their feelings and reactions, but they also learned about health, biology, and sociology. Thus, this type of project embodied the spirit of Project Lighthouse. They used real, compelling issues in their lives as a basis for constructing projects, acting, and learning. The world was not carved up into pre-determined chunks for them, but was treated as an integral whole, where the values in the traditional subject areas of language, math, science, and social studies, emerged for them in meaningful, authentic ways. This multi-faceted project had many beneficial aspects. While previously the young women did not write much or very well, by telling their own stories they were motivated to write, and write well. That the stories would be published for anyone in the world to see was an added incentive.
Mae Fah Luang is rural area in the north of Thailand, tucked against the Burmese border. The residents are from various hill tribes. Mae Fah Luang received electricity only three years ago. This year brings the first paved road to the area. The first formal school was initiated two years ago. Naturally, Mae Fah Luang suffered from the typical problems of rural areas; scant resources; poorly trained teachers; no libraries; difficult access to information; and a very poor economy. Under the direction of Ajan Jirachai, the head for Non-Formal Education in that region, Project Lighthouse aimed to change the learning environment and to have a positive effect on life in the area.
The NFE center adopted project-based learning readily. Here they decided to focus on environmental projects. Slash and burn farming had been a way of life in this area, but it had wreaked havoc on the environment. The NFE staff wanted to investigate how they could perform more ecologically sound but still productive farming. Students investigated their ideas within MicroWorlds projects. Afterwards, they tried their ideas. The group built a dam on one of the rivers. In a short time the dam broke. The group returned to MicroWorlds to model the river, its flows, the dam and its structure, in order to conceive a better design. They are now implementing their improved version. Here, as in BuriRam, they also will begin to create decision support systems in MicroWorlds to assist the farming. The idea is not that the decision support systems will provide all the answers. Rather, the constructionist practice of building the system will help broaden and deepen the knowledge among themselves.
When Project Lighthouse first began work in Mae Fah Luang, the computers were installed in the existing, rudimentary NFE center. The satellite control was placed outside. Not surprisingly, before long the harsh elements and the wildlife combined to damage the equipment. Khun Paron, the former CEO of Siam Cement, arranged for Siam Cement to donate the materials to construct a building to house the project and its equipment. The villagers themselves, including the children, all volunteered to construct the new computer center building. Everyone pitches in to maintain and clean the building. As is the case in every Project Lighthouse center, even though the area is quite poor, no equipment has been stolen, damaged or abused. We believe that since the Lighthouse activities emanate from and serve the people of the area, they, in turn, treat the equipment as communal assets.
Vachiravudh College (VC) is the first Lighthouse pilot site in Bangkok. It is an elite private boarding school for boys ages eight through eighteen. While once the pinnacle of Thai education, its board felt that it was no longer providing a high quality of education adequate for the times. They felt it had become mired in ways of the past. A new director, Dr. Chai-Anan, was hired and he began reforming the school, changing the style of the school to a learner-centered one. Dr. Chai-Anan and his staff met with Papert and his team, and found they agreed on many things. The college joined Project Lighthouse and began incorporating technology, particularly Logo and LEGO/Logo, into their new learning environment. They adopted a constructionist, project-based approach across the entire school. VC also hosts workshops for all of Project Lighthouse in its computer center. The workshops are attended by not only people from existing sites, but also by representatives from the Bangkok Municipal Authority, which directs education for all of Bangkok, other school administrators, teachers, and various Non- Governmental Organizations.
What is particularly interesting about the inclusion of this site is that the same philosophy and practice that governs the actions in the most remote and impoverished areas is the same practiced for those from the highest stratum of society. We hold the highest expectations for each learner and participant and provide all of them with the best possible support and materials. Projects may differ based upon interests and environments but the underlying organization, tools, and basis is the same.
This similarity has given rise to new opportunities for all participants. Students from Vachiravudh have traveled to the remote hill tribe villages to assist in various Lighthouse projects. This type of collaboration is rather unique but has been highly satisfying to all involved.
Likewise, many teachers and students have come to assist and to learn at Vachiravudh. In an educational world that often tracks students and diminishes shared experiences across society, and provides different learning resources and opportunities, this aspect of Lighthouse has begun to show the possibilities from a more equitable approach.
UNIVERSITY LIGHTHOUSE LABS
Another unplanned but very positive development is the creation of Lighthouse Labs at various universities. As of now, the participating universities include Kasetsart, Chiangmai, KMUTT, Khon Kaen, and Suraranee universities, and at Rachaphat BuriRam College. After several Thai members of Project Lighthouse visited the MIT Media Lab and saw the work of Papert’s group, they felt that creating such groups at the universities in Thailand would not only provide good support for the project, but would also strengthen university education within Thailand. In this way, a constructionist approach is entering the university labs. The students from the labs provide technical support to the sites, as well as helping Lighthouse students direct projects. The university Lighthouse labs also are beginning to work on the development of new technology for learning in the way that the Epistemology and Learning group at the Media Lab does.
Access to the Internet of course is critical. The World Wide Web enables the villagers to gain access to information and people otherwise virtually impossible to reach. The importance of this, particularly in rural and impoverished areas, is paramount. The cost of text libraries was prohibitive. Access to a wide range of experts in remote areas is difficult if not hopeless. The Web potentially, and relatively inexpensively, connects previously remote areas.8
Use of the Web within Project Lighthouse is not just for information retrieval, but also is a means of communications with outside experts and colleagues, and another place for constructionist activities. While essentially everyone proclaims that the Internet will change education, almost all of the early proposals for its use are no different than looking up textual information. While this is a fundamental change in remote areas mentioned above, in many cases this is no change at all, and perhaps even a change for the worse.
Thus, in addition to information access, the Web is used as:
The allure of publishing on the Web for anyone in the world to access adds incentive for students. The practical nature of many of the Lighthouse projects provides tremendous community benefit through using the Web. Here again, the technological fluency gained via the Project Lighthouse approach is rewarding as maintaining a Web server and placing multimedia pages onto the site requires the project-based technological expertise developed within Lighthouse.
Since Project Lighthouse is off to a very encouraging start, people have begun to expand the project by adding new pilot sites, and by incorporating ideas from Lighthouse into other similar sites. Thus, in the north, people in Non-Formal Education are working to add similar pilots through other NFE centers. They too will begin with immersion workshops developing technological fluency, working initially with several small groups of about twenty students totaling around eighty per site. Two private schools in Chiangmai will begin adapting ideas of constructionism, technological fluency, and project-based learning. They will try to benefit from the work in the north, as well as the example from Vachiravudh College. Besides developing the Lighthouse labs, in the next few months we will attempt to strengthen the activities at each pilot site. As a group, we are collecting interesting learning stories, not only to help document the project but also to use as a way to reflect upon the activities with the intention of strengthening them and deepening our understanding. We will add new pilot sites and will spread activities into existing learning centers. More teachers, administrators, parents, and children will attend workshops, demonstrations, and assist in projects. They will incorporate what they like into their sites, and, we hope, will devise new activities that will be folded back into Lighthouse.
We are just beginning new projects. In BuriRam we hope to build decision support systems in MicroWorlds, not so much for the benefit of others but more so for the benefits gained by constructing them. The decision support systems will assist with determining safe uses and collection of water, and guiding sustainable, organic agriculture. We expect that the process of building such systems will help gather and distribute the systematic and scientific expertise as well as build and disseminate important knowledge about these matters. In the north, people will begin to develop tele-medecine projects to aid in providing health information to villagers who live far from clinics. In Mae Fah Luang9, people have created a Web-based community magazine, and will begin more traditional crafts design. They hope to use electronic commerce not only to provide income but also to help fund Lighthouse in their area. As more people are free to imagine what they can do and what they can learn, more and more projects will come on-line.
Although it is still very early, only nine months after the beginning of the initial workshops, Project Lighthouse has already shown many extremely positive results. If we take as its primary goal bringing into question how we choose to educate our children, in other words providing concrete examples of powerful learning that does not fit the existing pattern, then already it is a resounding success. Project Lighthouse has generated such tremendous enthusiasm that one of the biggest problems we face is not growing too fast. Despite the severe economic crisis, companies are still funding the project, believing their future depends upon this and other such efforts.
The idea of Constructionism resonated deeply and quickly. The idea of building deep understanding of domains through the construction of artifacts struck a strong chord. The process of creating an outer expression of an idea about something, using it as a concrete basis for reflection, going back outside oneself to refine the object, and so on, quickly took hold in each site. Khun Paron, a board member of the Suksapattana Foundation that coordinated Project Lighthouse in Thailand, used the idea of Constructionism to help convince many people and organizations to join and support the project.
The idea of technological fluency also is critical. At the beginning of the project, most people viewed the use of computers as a subject in itself, in the way that the idea of computer literacy is usually meant. That is, people advocated teaching children the components of the computer, how to use it in a rudimentary way, at most teaching a few software packages. This was what was typically done in schools and in Non-Formal Education centers. However, people have come to embrace the view expressed within Lighthouse. People are using technology as an expressive tool, as ubiquitous but more powerful than a pencil. Using MicroWorlds Logo was an important first step in this process. Constructing personally meaningful projects, and thereby gaining fluency with the technology, opened the doors to adopting the same methodology on and off the computer. Using the computer not only as a thing in itself but also as a means of exploring, learning about, and doing projects in other areas of interest is deeply integrated into the lives of the participants. This includes all manner of computational devices, and not just the one that sits on a desk.
Project-based learning has also taken hold. This has come not to mean pre-determined projects, but projects proposed and initiated by the participants themselves. Teachers are adapting from having a pre-determined lesson plan to following the lead of the students, or sometimes initiating projects themselves, and subsequently making connections to formalisms and bodies of knowledge based upon the situation and the state and experience of the learners.
Another very positive effect of Project Lighthouse is the breaking down of barriers artificially placed by traditional school. No longer are kids segregated by age. No longer are kids segregated from their parents or their communities. Their projects are not toys or meaningless exercises. They work on issues of importance to their communities. They still can do playful projects just for fun if they choose. But their work can have real impact and importance, and this not only provides motivation but also helps put the learning of school into practice. Perhaps the biggest change taking place is changing school from the place to get taught to the place to learn.