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.

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