Tag Archives: LCL

The student is the teacher and vice versa

“What are you waiting for? There are teachers in here who need your help!”

I hurried the students in. It was after school – most students were heading home or hanging out with their friends, but these 8th graders were sticking around to do a little extra work …teaching teachers.

For the MIT class “Learning Creative Learning,” we have to create a Scratch program about something that we do. There wasn’t a lot of detailed expectations – the point was to learn something about the program and create something. Some of our teachers who were taking this online course had no experience with Scratch, so we planned to give them some training. Rather than run a workshop with other teachers showing them how to work the controls, however, we decided it would be best if we dragooned some of the Middle School students who are taking the basic Computer Science elective for 6-8th grades. We’d have them show teachers how to use the software, raise their stature in the community, and help out the teachers.

The teachers came in one by one. They were tired – it had been a long week, with a lot of things going on. This was at the end of the day – not really the best time for teachers to start learning something new. Nevertheless, in they came. The students all sat down with the teachers, typically working one-on-one. They asked about the teachers’ assignment and showed them how to add sprites, import pictures, add sounds, and build scripts to animate the sprites. Everyone worked at different speeds and levels: some had worked with Scratch a little bit before while others were complete beginners. Nobody was an expert. The students worked patiently with the teachers, helping them when they got frustrated or lost.

Apart from the obvious purpose of helping our group get skilled enough with Scratch to start working on their assignment, we hoped to do a few things with the students and teachers. By reversing their roles, we hoped to show both teachers and students that they each have a lot to learn from each other and much to teach each other. Too often students are put in the passive role of receiving information and instruction from adults. By switching this around we hoped to show them – and teachers – that they can be active creators of information and learning. We also hoped that the students would gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the challenges of teaching. By having to deal with tired adults who are new to a system they’re familiar with, the students would see better what their own teachers sometimes have to deal with!

By the end of the hour, the teachers were moving along quite well. All had enough basic skills to work with the program, and some were well on their way to completing their assignment. The students came away with the knowledge that sometimes students know more than teachers!

The polyhedra of my childhood

The assignment: for “Learning Creative Learning” class, we were to read the forward from Seymour Papert‘s book Mindstorms: “The Gears of My Childhood.” We were then to write a reflection on an object from our childhood that interested and inspired us.

In my early teen years, my imagination as well as most of my free time was captivated by a collection of simple objects: polyhedra. Specifically, polyhedral dice.

These dice were the tokens and controlling objects for a variety of strategic games, including role-playing games. Through these games, I was able to create, control and explore a wide variety of worlds and scenarios. In the process, I found community and status and began a lifelong love of imaginative play.

With one throw of these polyhedra, a myriad of options opened up. It could have been a military action – a favourable or unfavourable outcome determined by the numbers that came up. It could have meant the success or failure of a new initiative. It could have been the life or death of a fictional character controlled by me. Through the polyhedra, and the numbers on them, the world (imaginary) could change in an instant.

Weekly, I and other teens played a variety of strategic games. Some were military campaigns – the English War of the Roses, World War II, etc. – hence the common name for these games: wargames. Others were more strategic: one, Civilization, had each player lead one of the early cultures of the Fertile Crescent and attempt to develop industry, spur trade and cultivate learning and knowledge growth to found a successful civilized nation. Some were set in worlds of fantasy – my favourite was Middle Earth – and combined strategy and tactics to accomplish various tasks.

And then there was Dungeons and Dragons. Not really a game, it was mainly a set of rules by which games were played. The games themselves were created by the leader – the Dungeon Master (DM) – who created a world, populated it with monsters, villains and heroes, and allowed other players to enter into the world tasked with a challenge. It could be a military or adventure campaign – exploring and seeking wealth and fame. It could be a problem to solve or a puzzle to work out. The only limit was the DM’s imagination.

The players created our own characters, using the all-powerful polyhedra to randomly determine their strength, intelligence, etc. Adopting that persona, we then entered the DM’s world and attempted to achieve success using the traits we had been given.

Through playing these games, and creating my own as DM, not only was I able to explore a multitude of worlds and scenarios – realistic, historical or fantastical – I was also able to learn tactics and strategies: the advantages of alliances, the compromises needed to achieve group goals, the importance of assisting others so they could succeed and help you succeed as well.

Furthermore, I was able to experience the joys of creation. Using my own imagination, I could build worlds that others could experience. If I could create them interesting and challenging enough, others would appreciate them and they and I would enjoy the experience all the more. My status was dependent on my creativity and imagination.

While I no longer play Dungeons and Dragons and only occasionally play other strategic games, I remember with fondness those days and experiences. I like to think that they helped make me more imaginative and creative, and helped me be a better team player and a more adventurous individual.

Serious play and frivolous work

If MIT’s Media Lab really does believe in “Lifelong Kindergarten,” why should the children have all the fun? If we really think people learn better through play, creation, experimentation, etc. then why do teacher workshops and other PD efforts involve so much blah blah blah?

Thus thinking, I organized a “playdate” for my group who are participating in the online “Learning Creative Learning” class through MIT and P2PU. Rather than a roundtable discussion on the readings and our reactions, I reserved the gardens for one of our campus buildings, invited families and children, organized snacks and drinks and brought out some toys and games.

The formal purpose was to recap the readings and thinking of Week 1 and get ready for the work of Week 2. In Week 1, we read Mitchel Resnick‘s paper, “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten.” For Week 2, we’ll be reading a variety of articles on interest-based learning, and part of the activities we are asked to do is the “Marshmallow Challenge.” Between the hands-on creative nature of the challenge and the paper’s thesis that kindergarten-style learning (a cycle of imagination, creativity and play) should be applied to learning at all ages, there was plenty of opportunities for creative learning.

Our group assembled with kids and soon settled down. I called the boys (and my daughter) over and stopped the impromptu soccer game. “Play time is over,” Ryan said. “Nope,” I said. “Play time is getting going. Soccer time is over – for now.” I then explained the rules of the marshmallow challenge and answered questions. (In a nutshell: with 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, 1m of tape & 1m of string, make a structure to hold up 1 marshmallow in 18 mins.)  There were two teams: the adults and the kids. Eagerly, they all got started as I began the timer. True to form. the adults sat around for a few minutes discussing and making plans. The kids got stuck in quickly and started building.

I circulated, watching and commenting. The kids were going full-tilt, building, testing, talking, laughing. The adults were being more methodical and planning things out more. I quickly realized one tactical mistake I’d made: the kids were from different classes and grade levels. They weren’t used to working together and I’d given them no instructions on doing that. They were all going their own way rather than working together. If this had been a class, I could have got away with what I’d done but with them all being unused to working with each other it looked like they weren’t going to get far.

The adults, meanwhile, were discussing various strategies and starting to test things out before building. A couple of them had seen the TED talk about the challenge and so knew some of the techniques to use and some of the pitfalls to avoid. They were strategizing and testing, rather than simply designing and building a structure. They were also able to work together easily: everybody were either colleagues or friends or both. (Family, too!)


The two groups worked very well and had great discussions. I heard plenty of “try this” or “what would happen if…” and other types of good brain-stretching discussions. People thought creatively: one of the kids – Nadia – came over to see what the adults were doing. I congratulated her and told everyone that there weren’t any rules about spying or trying to get ideas from others. (The adults then caught on!) One of the kids – Alanna – was first to get a standing structure and again I congratulated her and suggested the kids all work together to help her get her structure higher. Unfortunately, many hands in that case meant snapped spaghetti, and as the kids saw the adults’ structure taking shape they grew discouraged. All of them drifted off – my daughter had a tennis lesson and the boys wandered off to find the soccer ball. Only Alanna worked on, determined.

The adults managed to finish in about 15 minutes and wanted a measurement before the time went up – 48cm high! A good accomplishment!

We discussed what had worked and what led to success. We shared tips we’d seen on the video and the website, and related it to how the team had worked. We talked about how this type of activity could be useful in a class – Sienna wants to use it right away with her GILA (Global Issues, Local Action) class. I mentioned that it might be good for more hands-on type classes such as GILA or Sciences, but probably not a good activity for English class. Helen immediately put me right: she’d have the kids build a tower and then write about it. She’d also ask them to draw an analogy between building the structure and composing a story: the need for a good foundation, keeping things balanced, having elements that support each other, etc.

Meanwhile, Alanna continued on, determined to not only complete a structure but also beat the adults. Working alone, she bent the rules and found the tape roll, adding plenty and reinforcing her spaghetti tower. We adults discussed the pros and cons of breaking rules: one whole chapter in a book I was consulting (A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger van Oech that I’d borrowed from Sienna) was about how creative thinkers often had to break the rules. (I related the story of Alexander the Great, who became fated to rule all of Asia by unravelling the Gordian Knot …with his sword!) Breaking rules is just a form of “thinking outside the box” and definitely something to be encouraged (avoiding illegal, unethical or immoral rule-breaking!). At any rate, Alanna’s diligence and creativity was rewarded as she built a tower that stood well higher than the adults (until it drooped).

She ran off to join the other kids in undirected play while we adults went on to another activity. I’d thought of how such play and creation could be brought into the more abstract realm of words and ideas and designed an activity that I hoped would bridge the gap. I took the abstract from our week’s reading and cut it up into individual words. I then spread out the words on the table and encouraged the group to come up with one or more phrases and sentences that brought out the key ideas from the reading.

Everyone came up with their own phrases – I realized that maybe I should have split them up into pairs rather than one big group. But there were great discussions around the table about how “imagine” related to “learning” or why the word “traditional” was in the pile and so forth. I’d included some blank strips for people to include words that they couldn’t find, and some used those – again, rules can be broken for creative thinking! There were some great ideas expressed in these “constructed” phrases – and the process of building, trading, sharing and comparing was fun to watch and be a part of.

Meanwhile, the kids were all enjoying undirected play. Some were running around, creating games with action figures. Others were building with Lego bricks. A few were building things with a set of flexible snap-together pieces. The creations were quite clever: skirts, balls, slings for carrying and firing balls.


Meanwhile, the adults moved into more traditional discussion punctuated by a few more creative tasks – puzzles and thought problems. We talked about the excitement and creativity we’d seen that day and how we could incorporate it into our own classes. We discussed some of the institutional and logistical issues that prevented such play and creativity from becoming widespread in our or any school. We thought of some fun projects that we could do with students as part of classes or after-school activities.

And we talked about how much fun we’d had that day and how great it would be if more teacher work time was creative and constructive and playful and not so much lecture-style. I acknowledged that my own preparation for the day’s activities was greater than if I’d been trying to lead a more traditional discussion session (although not more than if I was going to do a long lecture!), but said that it was much more rewarding.

I think we’re going to have regular adult/family “playdates” throughout this class. What fun!

The play’s the thing

screenshot from video CC-BY: MIT, P2PU, Mitch Resnick

There he is: an eager student & national robotics champion. He’s showing off to a visiting university professor, a big shot in Lego & robotics & creativity. And the visitor is impressed by the robotics team and all that they have created and their ability to program and problem-solve.

So he asks the teacher how this integrates with what the students do in class. And the teacher looks at the visitor, perplexed. “There is no way we do this in the classroom. This is only for afterschool. During the classroom they must be drilled on their math activities.”

Too often, that reaction and that attitude are wildly prevalent in schools all around the world. We may talk about 21st Century Learning and creativity and flexible thinking, but far too often only lip service is paid. At the end of the day, the students have to pass their end of year tests, get good grades on their IB exams, do well on their SATs so they can get on to university. Etcetera, etcetera.

Sure, most good teachers do try to foster creativity and individual expression  …but they are also caught up in the systems we have that were established in an older, slower age. The best teacher can foster creativity while preparing the student to sit her exams, but it’s not an easy job.

So I’ve signed up for the new MOOC, Learning Creative Learning, offered in partnership between MIT’s Media Lab and P2PU. Taught by Mitch Resnick, the course is not only open for students but really open: they’re licensing videos and all materials freely (CC), so that educators and other interested people can reuse them in their own work.

It’s been a somewhat daunting task: I’ve had to sign up for Google+, create a community for my group, etc. I’m also finding myself cheerleader and group leader for a group of about 10 of my colleagues – all the people who’ve been put in my group are from my school! While I’ve got used to MOOC’s and Twitter and so forth, many of them are reasonably new. (Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the many grumblings I’ve heard from other groups that some people didn’t get emails or couldn’t find their groups. We’re all set!)

To get us started, we’ve been asked to read a paper by Mitch Resnick, All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. We also had a one-hour orientation lecture by him, which summed up much of the article and went over the semester’s activities and expectations.

His main point is that we should use more of traditional aspects of kindergarten throughout schooling: creative play, inventing, trialling and revising, etc. He includes a schematic of a kind of kindergarten design or engineering cycle:

screenshot CC-BY Mitch Resnick/MIT

Resnick makes the point that this cycle (more fuzzy in real life – the stages get all mixed up) is the key to invention and inventiveness. He argues that the more people play and create and share and imagine, the more they will learn and the more they will be successful and productive. He argues that if we use this method in later grades, school will be more engaging, more fun, more meaningful and more successful.

Many educators – myself included – will say that this is nothing revolutionary or new, that it reflects good teaching practices everywhere. However, my own experiences and my gut tells me that Resnick is bang on when he says that too much schooling is antithetical to this type of learning – and that there are trends away from this type of education. I’ve seen Kindergarten classes where kids have to sit in desks and complete phonics worksheets. I’ve seen teachers give busywork and drill facts. I’ve seen far too many classes with teachers standing in front of the class, while students (supposedly) listen. It happens too much.

It really seems to me that if we’re serious about creating lifelong learners and educating our students to be valuable contributors to society – real and virtual – in these dynamic times (the buzzword I’m trying to avoid is “21st century learning”), then taking a cue from Kindergarten and Mitch Resnick seems to be the obvious way to go. Don’t take my word for it: read his piece.

I’m off to start reading up for next week.