Monday, March 4, 2013

Week 4 Reading Reflections: Why the Lack of Ideas?

"Last fall I worked almost daily with a small group of deeply troubled teenagers. One day I brought a rattrap into our meeting place. Several boys, impressed by this ferocious-looking version of the familiar mousetrap, gathered around and began to make macho remarks: “you can break someone’s fingers with that” and “that’s nothing, I’ve set bear traps.” After this kind of talk had died down, a quiet member of the group,whom I will call Michael, piped up with: “Awesome.That’s a wonderful idea!” It took
me a few minutes to be sure that he meant what I hoped he did: he was saying that the mouse trap is based on a wonderfully clever idea; he found it awesome that anyone could have invented it.
 As I got to know Michael better I came to understand that seeing an idea where others saw an instrument of violence was characteristic of his mind. Ideas are what count for him...
You might think that he is “the intellectual” of the group.
 You would be led to a very different impression by his dismal school record. From the beginning he has been a regular habitue´ of “special education” classrooms. As seen through school tests he appears as an incompetent person: virtually illiterate, devoid of mathematical knowledge—in brief “a failure.” Working with Michael has increased for me the troubling awareness that failure in school can be the expression of valuable intellectual and personal qualities. Many do badly in school because their style simply does not fit schools. Many react badly to school because its emphasis on memorizing facts and acquiring skills that cannot be put to use is like a prison for a mind that wants to fly." (Papert, 2000) 

In this simple passage, Steven Papert illustrates an alarming problem with the American education system. Those that succeed are good at "doing school".  Exemplary students memorize facts, please teachers, and care more for grades than learning. They are performers. Teacher and student could care less about the learning process, as long as both are achieving; achievement as measured by standardized test. The tests cannot measure conceptual thinking or one's engagement in powerful, big ideas. The system renders innovative thought impossible.

So what happens to students like Michael? Students that see the big picture? Students who engage in complex thought? Students who care about process? Students who are intrinsically motivated by life's marvels? Students who come to learning with a sense of wonder? Students who want to take time to figure things out? Students who love to thinker and discover? Students who abhor being told useless trivia by authoritarian figures? Students who love learning, but whose love is systemically squashed?

Alan Kay picks up on this problem in remarks titled, Powerful Ideas Need Love Too! He starts by explaining how science majors often fail in explaining large theories. Kay is not talking about complex, erudite theories. Science majors fail to explain how seasons come to be, or strike out when discussing the phases of the moon. How does this happen?

They can memorize facts, but not connect the dots. This is a function of the school institutions themselves. People lack the skills to think about facts and turn them into a large, integrated system of thought. In many ways, they never learn how to think. Kay scoffs at the notion that this thinking is impossible or difficult to teach. He says it is quite hard to shoot hoops or hit a baseball, but kids will fail at great length to succeed in these tasks.

In order for ideas to be salient and valued, they need to be supported by surrounding culture. This is why musicians have children talented in music, and scientists are much more likely to produce little scientists. In those cultures, facts have a relevant home and place. The culture allows for individuals to take time, see models, tinker, and ultimately connect the dots. If the culture supports learning in this way, powerful ideas can take shape. School needs to be a place where such thinking about learning is fostered. School need to be a driver of such thinking about ideas. They need to serve as warehouses of thought. Are they?

How do we flip schools? How can we encourage those students who think in big terms? How can we encourage all students to connect the dots? How can we engage students in real learning? How can we give them a sense of wonder again?

In Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids, Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman offer some ideas. "Learning by designing" is different than "hands-on" or "learning by doing". "Learning by designing" is guided by big, innovative ideas. Failure is seen as a part of the creative leaning process. The tension of addressing, solving, and tinkering with big ideas drives learning and creativity. This is truly different.  "Learning by designing" sets up a culture that supports big connections.

"In designing construction kits, one of our primary goals is to help kids explore and understand powerful ideas. We have found that trying to teach powerful ideas directly is not very effective. Rather, our strategy is to provide opportunities for kids to encounter and use powerful ideas as a natural part of design experiences... 
When we were testing an early version of our LEGO/Logo technology, we worked with a fourth-grade class in which the students wanted to build an amusement park.."

Think about being in that school. What is more engaging, reading about the energy, force, and matter of roller coasters? Or designing your own prototypes?  What school would you want your brother, sister, son or daughter in? Which school allows students to play with knowledge and facts? Which school allows for learners to connect the dots between small facts and large theory?

What schools are we now constructing?

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