Mitch Resnick is the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. His team developed the Scratch programming application, and his latest book is Lifelong Kindergarten (Amazon affiliate link). I spoke to him at the recent Bett show in London.
In a nutshell, what is the philosophy underlying your approach to how youngsters should learn, both in general and programming in particular?
There is nothing more important than helping kids to develop creative thinking to deal with unpredictable situations. How can we do that? Well, the root of the word ‘creative’ is ‘create’, so we need to give them opportunities to create. So we have to give them the opportunity to design and make things, share their creations with other people, experiment, get feedback, and to iteratively adapt their creation.
What findings from your research have surprised you, either because something you anticipated was not in evidence, or because something you did not anticipate was?
I’m constantly surprised by the things kids will create, and what they will do. I’m always surprised and delighted by the range of things that kids will create, and the way they take advantage of the fact that they are part of a community, by sharing things. In fact, they do more than just share: they use the community for crowdsourcing. So, for instance, they will go into the forum and say “I need a new character with the following characteristics…”. Then other kids will offer help.
Some even offer consultancy services! For example, they will announce “I’m really good at making backgrounds, so if you need a background, get in touch.”
Others make tutorials. There are thousands of tutorials up there now.
Have your views on kindergarten education had an impact on policy-makers, or have you found yourself mainly preaching to the choir?
I don’t think I am preaching to the choir, because so many people are focused on grades. I’m getting a lot of push-back from people who are sceptical about whether the approach I advocate can work. I think over time people will change: I tend to describe myself as a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist.
Change is difficult, because you have to change people’s mind set. My ideas are difficult to implement, but I think as society changes the need for the kind of approaches I’m suggesting will become recognised.
Given the apparent obsession of policy-makers in education with targets, even in early years settings, what do you think “ordinary” teachers can do to turn the tide?
You have to concentrate on their goals, because you’re not going to change people’s methods unless they change what they’re trying to achieve. If your goal is to achieve well in arithmetic exams, then other methods can work very well. Unfortunately, too often in the education system people end up valuing what they can assess rather than assessing what’s of value.
I think that many ‘ordinary’ teachers are, in their heart, aligned with what I’m suggesting. But they feel that they just can’t do anything because of the expectations and demands of the system. If they had flexibility and flexibility to explore, I think many teachers would be happy to adopt this kind of different approach.
Do you know of any schools that have successfully adopted a kindergarten approach even in the upper grades?
There are many schools where they are implementing this to a certain extent. The kind of ideas I’m suggesting are not totally new ideas. People like John Dewey were suggesting similar things a hundred years ago. There will always be innovative schools and innovative teachers; what we need do is make that more widespread.
Our approach is what we call the 4 P’s of education: project-based learning, done with passion, collaborating with peers, and adopting a playful, experimental approach. A lot of teachers are implementing this approach in schools, but we just need it to be more widely adopted.
Are you aware of any longitudinal research that compares the achievements, say in terms of final grades, of children who have been allowed to tinker in a constructionist way and those who have had a much more traditional education?
We haven’t done systematic studies, because it’s hard to change just one variable. But let me read you a couple of things that people have written to me. I’m currently reading applications for graduate students to work and study at the MIT Media Lab. [The items that Mitch read to me were from people who had fallen in love with Scratch while they were at school, because it enabled them to understand maths or discover the pleasures of programming.
One of the problems identified by many teachers in the UK is that boys seem to not like writing. What would you suggest is the answer, given your comment in an interview that just focusing on grammar and spelling isn’t going to get them excited about writing?
Kids will write about stuff they find interesting. If you teach programming in a way that allows kids to be creative and express themselves, they will enjoy writing*.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Providing opportunities for all kids, from all backgrounds, from all places, to live up to their full potential.
What next/anything else?
I’d say: stay true to your values in everything you do. My mentor, Seymour Papert said that education has very little to do with explanation, it has a lot to do with engagement.
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