I’m on sabbatical for the Spring 2018 semester. My first sabbatical project, getting my knee replaced, began in earnest on January 12 and I’ve made great progress on it over the past 12 days. My main sabbatical project has been a little more difficult to get going because of pain meds and how difficult it is to concentrate when I’m taking them. But I made some significant progress today.
My plan is to read books and articles related to General Education and then write about them in relation to the PSU cluster initiative. The first book on my list is Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Mitchell Resnick, the author of the book, is a faculty member at MIT who created the Scratch programming language so that students could easily make digital things. Scratch is built on the four learning principles that Resnick explores in the book:
- Projects: People learn best when they are actively working on projects — generating new ideas, designing prototypes, making improvements and creating final products.
- Passion: When people focus on things they care about, they work longer and harder, persist in the face of challenges, and learn more in the process.
- Peers: Learning flourishes as a social activity, with people sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, and building on one another’s work.
- Play: Learning involves playful experimentation — trying new things, tinkering with materials, testing boundaries, taking risks, iterating again and again.
These four learning principles seem closely related to President Birx’s ideas about the kind of learning that could/should happen in clusters. In fact, this book is full of details that I think fill in gaps in our understanding of what a cluster education might be about.
The first thing that I liked about this book is that it is grounded in learning theory. Resnick posits that the best way to develop creative thinkers is to engage them in projects in which they are making things. He calls this learning by making. To understand the connections between learning and making, Resnick goes back to the work of Jean Piaget. Through careful observations and interviews with thousands of children, Piaget developed the constructivist theory of learning, the idea that “children are active builders of knowledge, not passive recipients. Children don’t get ideas, they make ideas (p. 37).” Seymour Papert, whom Resnick calls “the patron saint of the Maker Movement”, worked with Piaget in Geneva in the early 1960’s. He took Piaget’s work one step further to argue that children construct knowledge most effectively when they make things. He called this approach constructionism. “As children construct things in the world, they construct new ideas in their heads, which motivates them to construct new things in the world, and on and on, in a never-ending spiral of learning (p. 38).” Papert is probably best known as the creator of Logo, a simple programming language oriented around graphics which allows programmers to clearly see the results of their programs. He felt strongly that making things on a computer (programming) should not be an activity in which only experts can engage. Instead, everyone should learn how to program. His approach to computers as an educational tool was quite different from most at the time. Most saw “computers as tools for delivering and accessing information, not for making and creating as [Papert] imagined (p. 39).”
Resnick agrees with Papert’s approach to computing technology. He says, “Rather than toys that think, I’m interested in toys to think with (p. 41).” He believes that the best learning environments are those that allow students to do more than interact with technologies; they must be able to create technologies. This is the focus of the Scratch programming language and the online community that supports it. And this focus on projects is the first of the four principles around which the book is organized.
The second principle of the book is passion. Students should work on projects that they feel passionate about. To support this focus on passion, Resnick emphasizes the idea that the learning environments we create should have low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. For a technology to be effective, “it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floors) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceilings) (p. 64).” In addition, the technology should support a wide range of different types of projects, providing multiple pathways from the low floor to the high ceiling. These wide walls allow students to “to work on projects based on their own personal interests and passions (p. 64).” In other words, “because different children have different passions, we need technologies that support many different types of projects, so that all children can work on projects that are personally meaningful to them (p. 64).”
The third principle of the book is peers. Students should work collaboratively with their peers on projects that they are passionate about. The book is full of examples from Resnick’s personal experiences along with advice about how to deal with the challenges of teaching using these ideas. I found that many of these examples and his advice resonate with my own experience of teaching a project-based First Year Seminar this Fall focused on a wicked problem. For example, one of the things I struggled quite a bit with was how much structure vs. freedom to give students as we started the class. Resnick discusses this particular challenge at length throughout the book. He says, “Too often, teaching strategies are seen as a dichotomy. Option 1: Deliver instruction and information. Option 2: Leave children alone and let them learn (p. 111).” He tries to get teachers and mentors to see teaching strategies in a more nuanced way, where the teacher plays a variety of roles throughout the learning experience.
In particular, Resnick says, “Good teachers and good mentors move fluidly among the roles of catalyst, consultant, connector, and collaborator (p. 112).” As a catalyst, the teacher provides a spark that accelerates the learning process. This might happen early in the project, when the learners are trying to get started but are having trouble coming up with project ideas so the teacher shows some example projects. Or it might happen later when students have gotten stuck in some way and the teacher asks provocative questions or suggests new approaches to try to get the students moving again. At other points in the project, the teacher might serve as a consultant. This is what the saying “guide on the side” refers to. The teacher might provide technical, creative, or emotional support for the student to accomplish their specific goals. The idea is that the teacher figures out what the student is trying to do and then determines the best way to support the student’s goals. The teacher can also serve as a connector, someone who tries to connect the student with others who can support their goals. Those others might be other students in the class who have complementary skills and knowledge or they might be people outside of the class who have skills and knowledge that will be valuable in helping the student accomplish their goals. Finally, the teacher might act as a collaborator. There are times when the teacher’s skills, knowledge, and interests are closely aligned with the goals of the project and the teacher might work with the student on the project so that they are truly collaborating on meeting the goals of the project. The student and teacher are then truly co-creators of the project.
Although thinking about these roles doesn’t give a definitive answer to how much support the teacher should provide for students, Resnick recognizes that without intervention from a teacher or mentor, most students will not learn to create new things using technologies and tools that are new to them. Working with peers is often not enough for students. They need access to experts. Although all the world’s information is available to students, they will not “necessarily know what information to look for or how to make sense of the information they find (p. 119).” We need to provide students with the appropriate amount of mentorship and guidance “and help them learn, over time, how to find people and organizations that can provide the support and expertise they need (p. 119).” Thinking about the question of how much structure to provide with this goal in mind feels like it will be helpful to me the next time I teach the First Year Seminar.
The final principle of the book is play. In discussing this principle, Resnick comes back to that tension between structure and freedom. He uses Marina Bers distinction between playpens and playgrounds. Both are designed to support play but different kinds of play that result in different kinds of learning. A playpen is a restrictive environment that, in the metaphor, provides little freedom for experimentation, autonomy, or exploration. There are also few risks involved in playing in a playpen. A playground, on the other hand, provides room for experimentation, exploration, and collaboration. In fact, in software development, we often use the metaphor of a sandbox to describe a space that we give to users in which they can test software in whatever ways they want. When designing learning experiences, we might create playpens (with step by step instructions for building specific objects, for example) or we might create playgrounds in which students are free to create and build and experiment in a variety of ways.
Resnick argues that if we want to help students develop as creative thinkers, we must design learning environments that look like playgrounds. In fact, Resnick is a huge proponent of tinkering, experimenting, trying out new ideas, reassessing goals, making refinements, and imagining new possibilities. Schools tend to emphasize the value of planning, a top-down approach to solving problems. Planners analyze a situation, identify needs, develop a clear plan, then execute the plan. The problem with this, of course, is that not all problems are amenable to being “solved” in this way. As I’ve written about before, wicked problems cannot be solved using the traditional planning approach. In the First Year Seminar, we have decided to use a design thinking approach to tackle these problems. Resnick argues in favor of tinkering, which is a bottom-up approach to problem-solving. Tinkerers “start small, try out simple ideas, react to what happens, make adjustments, and refine their plans. They often take a meandering, circuitous path to get to a solution. But what they lose in efficiency they gain in creativity and agility (p. 136).” This focus on playfulness feels right on target with what we’re trying to do with cluster curriculum.
The main value I found in this book is Resnick’s argument for why project-based learning is so important. He disagrees with people who claim ours is an information society. Instead, he says, ours is a creative society. “As the pace of change in the world continues to accelerate, people must learn how to adapt to constantly changing conditions. Success in the future–for individuals, for communities, for companies, for nations as a whole–will be based on the ability to think and act creatively.” (p. 158) He goes on to say, “One of the best ways to help young people prepare for life in a creative society is to make sure they have the chance to follow their interests, to explore their ideas, to develop their voices.” (p. 158) This is exactly the goal that we have had in changing the First Year Seminar so that it is focused on wicked problems.
Although this book is not focused specifically on General Education, I found it energizing to imagine what it might look like if we used constructionist learning theory as the underlying philosophy of our Gen Ed program. Imagine how engaged students might be if all of their Gen Ed classes used constructionist pedagogy, where students work on (tinkered with?) projects that they are passionate about with their peers and a playful attitude. I look forward to exploring some of these ideas as we move forward with implementing the cluster-based vision of General Education.