From Legos to littleBits

Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things?  Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way.  I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea.  This broadens the concept of art significantly.  If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process.  Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education.  Diversity is a necessity for artists.  But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness.  I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook.  Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development.  Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level.  If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more.  For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar.  For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.

How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth?  This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy.  Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment.  When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests.  The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve).  When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.

Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking.  The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions.  The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom.  We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged.  In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits.  It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation.  Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.

Fast Track Preschool

Children in Jerusalem.
Image via Wikipedia

This New York Times story of preschool madness elicits an obvious response: “Are these parents crazy?”  There are more subtle forms of directed learning that may thwart rather than propel children. We all know that an over-scheduled child can become a stressed-out child.  It would take a month’s worth of blogs to identify negatives associated with stress. For this post I’ll stick to the theme of directed learning.  I should call it over-directed learning.

I have seen teachers and parents (including me) pulling their hair in frustration because a child won’t go along with our learning structure.  I am a fan of giving a certain amount of structure to kids. This includes a few rules, a reliable schedule and logical consequences. That structure allows kids freedom to create within a psychologically safe environment. But here is where I differ from those who push their children to earn their place among the learning superstars before they enter middle school. A child who plays with Lego’s by destroying and rebuilding or spins around in the backyard until he falls down, stands up, looks around, and spins again is learning. We label this kind of learning “play” and by doing so we reduce its importance in the educational hierarchy. Learning does not only occur at a desk or in an environment where right answers rule the day.

Coercing children into directed learning environments such as the one described in the New York Times article or even placing your baby near the stereo to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has only a short-term effect on spatial-temporal reasoning and no discernible increase in intelligence. Why, then, do we continue down these competitive paths? Sometimes we  favor organizational skills and following directions over experiment and exploration. Imposing adult standards on children for things like order, neatness and organization has more to do with convenience and less to do with allowing children to learn and grow. Failure Freedom is missing in these environments.

The freedom to fail boldly is what allows for quantum leaps in learning. By encouraging our children to be afraid of failure and push harder to please the adults in their lives we have siphoned the gas from our educational engine. It took me three kids and many years in the classroom to learn this lesson. But my failures (and not the copious books I have read) have been my greatest learning tool.

Arts Teaches 21st Century Skills

In 2004 The Partnership for 21st Century skills released a document that should have everyone in the world of education jumping through their hatbands.  Although there are some articles touting the efficacy of this bit of research, there isn’t quite the fanfare one would expect for such a project.  I have my theories as to why we might want to ignore a project that turns our current learning model on its ear.  But it is out there.

Cutting edge businesses such as Apple, Blackboard, Intel, Lego, Microsoft, Oracle, Verizon, Cisco and many others are deeply involved in the conversation to raise awareness.  If we pay attention to what progressive business leaders and visionary educators have to say about why, what and how we are teaching rather than how much it costs to prop up the old model, we might see positive, groundbreaking, grassroots social change.  According to Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, (this link is less than a minute and worth your time). “There is no doubt that creating an aligned 21st century education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to triumph in the global skills race is the central economic competitiveness issue for the next decade.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills arts map is a simple, colorful, 17 page, brochure-style document that can be used for curriculum development in all areas.  There are four other skills maps and three literacy maps as well as a variety of other resources and valuable information.  Each of the maps comes with a more precise framework definition document.  The entire project looks to the future of knowledge and education.  The emphasis on media literacy,  life skills and technology seems a no-brainer, but we avoid considering the obvious because of economic short-sightedness.

It is no surprise to arts teachers that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has at its core an education model that looks very similar to the one arts educators have been using for decades. It features critical thinking, collaboration and innovation and emphasizes integrated learning.  For some of us, integrated means we made an art project depicting the Lewis & Clark expedition.  But for arts educators we understand the value of integration in our curriculum.  It isn’t necessary to explain to students that “today we are going to learn a math skill” when they enlarge an art project using a grid.  We don’t have to explain integration of physics in our curriculum when demonstrating how the pulley system works to operate the grand curtain at a stage proscenium.  There is no discussion of a history lesson when the choir teacher explains the Baroque period.  It is commonly accepted that all arts teachers are integrative.  It is not otherwise possible to teach an arts class.  I am by no means suggesting that science teachers do not expect to teach some writing skills or that English teachers wouldn’t run across a history lesson.  I am saying that our current model compartmentalizes learning in a way that has no parallel in the real world.

If we are to address widespread resignation, poverty, labor skills deficits, teen suicide, juvenile crime and our economic position in a global market, we must first address the most profound influence on young people outside their families; we must transform our education system.  If we do not, we will see a continued increase in the gap between haves and have-nots, a rising budget deficit, decreased standing in a world market and an eventual slide into 2nd World status.  It is time we got serious about joining the 21st Century.



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