Friday, September 19, 2008

school's biggest failure: taking away our sense of purpose and direction

One of the biggest concerns I have about the traditional school system is how little direction its students graduates with. Upon graduation students are either taking a job to support their new independence and the bills that come with it or in their first year at college. In both of these cases its alarmingly normal for students to have little to no idea about what they to do with themselves -- in both the day-to-day sense and the broader "what do I want to do with my life" sense. College students usually don't know what to major in (but are in college because they're supposed to be) and workers are very much in the same boat. They're usually not in their job because it's the first step towards their true calling, but because they've got rent to pay in less than 30 days.

I interpret this as one of our educational system's most powerful and toxic effects. No matter what educational theory one subscribes to, each and every one is designed for the explicit benefits of the child. In every system, books, teachers, buildings, salaries, and materials are all assembled together, for twelve years, solely for the student's benefit -- usually for the sakes of their own learning, success, happiness and well-being. Despite that students come out of this system without having any ideas as to how to address one of their most important personal questions: What do I want to do with myself, with my life, or even, today?

I believe our current educational system's unwillingness to let a student influence or control his or her own education is responsible for this. When the biggest choices a student gets in one's own education are on the level of whether he can study French or Spanish in high school, it's no surprise that a student has no practice or experience with thinking about what it is that they would truly like to work or work towards as an adult.

It's this line of thinking that has led me to think that students need as much autonomy as they can get. They need to weigh choices, make decisions, and feel their own decisions' consequences. Instead of providing a space where students can do just this, we offer them six regimented classes a day that have been decided for them as in their best interest. But what good is the best teaching if a student doesn't know what to do with it?

Young children are often very emphatically clear as to what they want. So emphatic, often, that it's cute. I think this clarity -- this "I want to know more about *this*!' (or do this, or go to this place, or whatever -- "I want to experience this!") is something that adults very often struggle with recovering once out of schooling. Personally, I have spent and still spend tons of time wondering about what I find fun and what I find meaningful, and relish being a young child and having that internal instinct of being able to recognize these things on sight. (Yes! That's what I want to do! Ah! I'm so glad that's happening!) Adult responsibilities and relationships add new layers of complexity that a child doesn't have to sort out, but I think the bigger problem is that we as adults are out of practice. After going through a schooling system which asks us to pay progressively less and less attention to our own curiosity (to broadly encompass the set of thoughts that include finding some things fascinating and are others to be really, truly important,) it is no surprise that this once loud and clear voice becomes a quiet, meek, hard-to-hear sort of thing.

And while I think it's entirely possible to reclaim that pure sense of direction -- to be fully aware of one's own personal interests and one's own deep concerns for her life, and to begin to find the first steps one can take in addressing each of those things -- that it would be entirely better not to submerge it in the first place.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

July NUBtalk

A few weeks ago (July 27) I gave a NUBtalk about camp and its view on education. I had a lot of fun doing it!

NUBtalks are a lecture series organized by some friends of mine, who recently started a workshop called NUBlabs. They've been inviting people that they think are neat to come talk bi-weekly.

My talk is linked to from their site and here. If you listen to it, tell me what you think!

Some of the anecdotes I tell I've talked about in this blog and some I haven't. They are...

1. Making a robotic spider an example I considered for the Art of Hands-on science article in Education Week.
2. Ben and decompression
3. Kids teaching other kids, in this case through doll-making
4. The example of lightsabers to get kids into the idea that everything can be made and modified. I also use this as a point to explain the role of adults in an environment where kids get so much autonomy -- they seed this idea that kids wouldn't pick up otherwise in our society.
5. Another point about the role of adults -- teaching electronics as an example of showing kids how to do things they want to do but don't know they want to do.
6. Having both men and women lead electronics activities, in order to make the activity equally accesible.
7. I cite the Star Simpson case as an example of society feeling tense about electronics, and highlight the importance of environments existing where people can learn about electronics and thereby feel more comfortable with and less scared of them.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

a wonderful idea at the fountain

In 2007, camp was in Harvard Square, and pretty close to Memorial Drive. There was a park there at JFK with a fountain in it. I remember going there with a group of 5 kids on the first day of the second week. It was the beginning of a new week and so we had a fair number of new kids (that year we had about 50% or so of our campers come for just one week and we thus had lots of new faces every Monday.) It was a fun, small trip and I thought it was a neat way for me to get to know a small group of kids amidst the larger mass of 30 campers.

The park had a fountain in it, and the kids started asking if they could go in it. As camp only has 3 simple rules (1. Don't hurt anybody. 2. If you make a mess, clean it up. 3. Don't go where you're not supposed to go.), lots and lots is left open to what the adult feels is reasonable. Questions come up -- like "Can we go in the fountain" -- which will raise a general feeling of "no, it seems like we shouldn't" but leaves the question hanging in the air (what's the real reason: merely because it's conventional, or because there is indeed a reason why we shouldn't do that.)

For example. two kids once asked me to let them take a marker apart. They were trying to replicate a water gun they'd seen, and needed a small, plastic tube to use. The body of the marker was the best tube they'd been able to find. While normally I wouldn't ordinarily want markers getting cut up, this was a clear example where I was fine with it -- it seemed like a really clever solution to their problem.

So there's an openness to considering each of these unusual situations that I find fantastic. It either leads to a rare, wonderful possibility, or it gets the adult and child on a clear page of why we can't do something (providing an explanation rather than only saying no.) The tricky part with this is the cases where it just doesn't seem obvious what to do -- there's a vague feeling in your gut about the situation, but perhaps you're the only adult around, and no words are coming to mind to articulate that feeling.

That's how it was with the fountain. It felt strange to let kids go into it, but I couldn't figure out why. Eventually, I decided it was ok for them to put their feet in ... and then to stand it in ... and then to swim and play in it ... and then I joined them in there. At the time, I could see no other reason beyond our social norms that people don't go into fountains. (A few weeks later many people pointed out to me that the water's not the cleanest, and now I'd be unlikely to let that go. A year ago though, I was blissfully ignorant. edit! 10/22/08 I just re-read that and don't think that would be my honest reaction. I think my reaction, as with most things, would to be really blunt about it with the kids, and tell them that the cleaning crew at the park had told us that people pee in the fountain at night, I'd explain that it's possible that this is just a story from the cleaning crew to get us not to do weird stuff, and mention that the pee may or may not be washed out by daytime -- you certainly couldn't see any -- and then let the group deliberate. I would listen, I would have some glee while listening, and I'd support what they chose. done editing.)

The kids were thrilled to be in an unusual space, and it's a pretty good fountain for playing. It had two tiers and a series of 12 pipes spurting water at an even height. For the first half hour or so, the kids played and played. Something really interesting happened around then. The kids started playing with the pipes, and began to notice a relationship between them: when you covered up some pipes, the other pipes shot water even higher!

The kids got really into this. I remember joining them in finding a way to cover up all the pipes -- a contortion of hands and feet that resembled a game of Twister. Lots of relationships about the pipes became clear: the more that were covered, the higher the uncovered pipes shot water out. Once a pipe was uncovered, it would first shoot out water much higher at first and then stabilize to the same height as all the other uncovered pipes (if I'm remembering correctly.) Playing with these relationships fascinated the kids, and they proceeded to do this for the next half an hour.

I was reminded of several similar exhibits I've seen at museums -- traditionally with some white PVC pipe and with air instead of water. Often these exhibits have a ping-pong that you can send flying with the pressurized air-flow. I've seen kids tinker with those exhibits for a few minutes, but never this full-on (and full-bodied) half-hour long engagement as it were at the fountain.

The discovery of an idea or a phemonenon -- rather than the direct presentation of it -- seems to have such an excitement and electricity to it that the engagement (and I'm sure the retention of it) are phenomenal. I think this is a crucial piece of an effective educational environment: creating a space where discoveries are possible, rather than exhibited (or of course, some things are displayed as inspiration and some things are left to be explored.)

I've held this memory with me for a while -- why was it so much more exciting for the children to play with this scientific phenomena through their own discovery in the fountain then when I've seen kids see this exhibit in a museum. The fountain itself -- the excitement of being somewhere you don't normally get to go to, and of course somewhere wet -- is a big influence. The experience has often been a guide to me -- how can I provide as little direct guidance as possible so that a child will find something amazing, but still be fully curious about it. I was recently reminded of this experience after reading Eleanor Duckworth's "The Having of Wonderful Ideas."

In this essay, Duckworth describes the feeling of seeing a set of materials, lighting up and going "yes! I've got a great idea" as the having of a wonderful idea. She describes it in the example of conducting a Piaget-style interview, and giving a child a collection of straws of different lengths. The interview is to have the child order the straws by length. One of the children she interviews comes to this idea all on his own, before Duckworth has said anything. Duckworth characterizes his excitement by articulating what she feels the boy is experience: "I have a wonderful idea. You'll be surprised by my wonderful idea."

I was excited to read Duckworth's essay, having words put to an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a year now. While it's perhaps wrong to frame the idea that knowledge should never be direct transmission, the sheer amount of interest that comes with the having of a wonderful idea makes it a powerful one to me. I want to think more about how camp as a whole directly fosters this, and identify the features of camp which used to feel 'intuitively correct' and I can now link to this idea.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

decompression: giving kids the room to do nothing

Last year at camp, we had a 7-year old boy named Ben come for nine weeks of the summer -- pretty much the whole thing. For the first three or four weeks of camp, he pretty steadily played with LEGOs, made a few close friends, and did very few, if any of our activities. He had come to our building night series of events at MIT earlier -- and was fully eager and aware of our style of doing science projects and taking machines apart. He seemed quite happy with the offerings, like he full well would have enjoyed them, but was perfectly content to make LEGO houses and spaceships with his new best friend and do his own thing.

Every now and then, two counselors would have a conversation about him. We'd note that he wasn't doing any of our projects, think about it a bit together, and determine that he seemed happy playing with LEGOs and that somehow, this seemed right for him. Occasionally one of these conversations might have led to a dedicated effort on an adult's part to draw him into an activity, which sometimes would cause him to do the activity and sometimes not. The default mode of doing his own thing and playing with LEGOs would quickly return in either case.

Around the 5th week, he had this sudden spike of interest in a programming language we use, called Scratch. I've mentioned Scratch here before, but I'll talk about it a little more in-depth. It's a very kid, adult, and people friendly way to learn how to program. To code, you snap together puzzle-shaped blocks and these create scripts for characters on a stage to follow. You can easily create commands for characters respond to pressing a certain key on the keyboard, instructions for what happens when one character touches another character, and so on. It's got the basic logic of programming -- control structures (if-then blocks and forver blocks) and variables.

I took a class with the Lifelong Kindergarden group" at MIT's Media Lab my last semester at MIT. It was a class billed to be about technology and education, and focused on Scratch, which they were developing at the time. I had always assumed that computer use in education simply dressed up traditional teaching methods -- an automation of the typical drill-and-practice routines of learning numerical computation or spelling. Scratch (and Seymour Papert's book Mindstorms) transformed the role I saw computers playing in technology. With Scratch kids could both wrap their head around the basics of programming, but more importantly, test out their ideas for a program and see if it worked. They could build something -- a program via Scratch -- and go through their own design process by seeing if their program did what they wanted to, and if not, figuring out why.

I could write a lot here, to explore why I think Scratch is great. The simplest sentence I use to sum all this up is that Scratch lets kids look at computers as a tool. (I often place this in opposition to television, as it's more often viewed by families as an intense media source. That's a thread for another time!)

Scratch was a huge inspiration for me in starting camp. I thought it would be amazing if children were exposed to tools like Scratch, but didn't have the traditional classroom constraints of 50-minute classes and bells. I wanted a child to be able to dive in to Scratch (or circuits or art materials, or whatever. I want children to dive in.) and work until they feel their project or done or that they need a break -- I wanted it to be their call when they were done working on something, not an arbitrary time schedule's.

Ben really took to this exact scenario. In his 5th week at camp he got into Scratch, and he pretty much never stopped until the end. He happily made program after program with it most of his days at camp from there on out. I remember one game he made -- you had a cat (the default character in Scratch) who was armed with a yo-yo. The cat could move around the screen, where they were coins flying back and forth across the screen. Some coins had positive numbers, and some negative numbers. You used the yo-yo to hit the coins, and hat the number on the coin added to your score -- and so you only wanted to hit the positive numbers. When you hit all the positive coins, you got a "congratulations!" style-screen.

There's a lot going on there, especially for a 7-year old. The game makes fluent use of positive and negative numbers and variables. The game holds some notion of state -- once all the positive coins are gone, the level ends, and so somehow the game is keeping track of what's happened to all the positive coins. This isn't to say the value here is these academic skills acquired along the way -- they're side effects of a child figuring how he wants to make a game with a cat and a yo-yo.

The academic skills have served as an interesting benchmark of Ben's capabilities. Variables are a concept that I've seen easily trip-up children at 10, 11, or 12 -- and here Ben was using them comfortably. A friend of mine who works at the Lifelong Kindergarten group was personally stunned that a boy at 7 could create games as complex as the one's he was making. When using these benchmarks as a guide, Ben's work with Scratch seemed like it had to be that of a prodigy. To us at camp, it mostly looked like a boy who had found something he loved doing and was working on it 4 - 6 hours a day.

I now think that what was happening in Ben's first half of camp was a decompression from school. His mom mentioned that he'd a difficult year at school -- academically solid but socially tough. A period of simple play -- unstructured, goal-less play with LEGOs and new friends was his own personal antidote to that difficult year. I think that had Scratch been offered to him in this stage, he would have responded to it the same way he responded to other activities intentionally offered to him: maybe polite acceptance, maybe a bit of curiousity for an hour, or maybe no interest. I don't think that had he been offered Scratch while decompressing that he would have taken off with it as he did later in the summer.

The choice of "decompression" here begs the question -- decompressing from what? I think that in a poor educational situation, a child's personal interests and curiosity can slowly get ground down. Being asked to do something repeatedly that has no personal sense or meaning to it -- instead of purusing it in a way that is meaningful, or perhaps pursuing something else simply because it's exciting -- can slowly close one's instincts to explore and investigate what one wants to. These instincts and impulses of "I want to know why this happens!" aren't compatible with a rigid, pre-determined educational plan.

Of course, the curiosity doesn't get extinguished, but I think lies dormant. As an environment shows itself to be open to, supportive of, and fully compatible with curiousity, that trait can slowly reappear and express itself again. This is what I think is happening in a time of decompression. Its hallmarks are a child's complete contentedness to do nothing that seems novel, stimulating, or engaging, and a content, perhaps polite refusal to do anything offered that would normally engage the child. In an environment that does not halt when the child feels the need to decompress, but rather carries on with it's own business of making things and doing things (as camp does), there are ample opportunities to re-engage (at least at a level visible to adults) when the child feels eager to.

I think the option to decompress as needed is an extremely important one, and makes me reflect personally on myself and other adults that I know. What is the role of play in an adult's life? Why do we take vacations? Why do we take vacations even when enjoying our work, or finding it meaningful? When I talk about decompressing as an adult, I mean an active departure from the things I normally think about and find important to think about, and time to let those thoughts sit while I do something else. It seems that decompression for me personally is a way to cultivate open-mindedness: that until I let whatever it is I'm working on settle and leave it be for a few days, particularly when I'm feeling stuck, I'll be unable to see a new insight or perspective into what I'm working on, and moreover be completely unwilling to tackle any new questions or challenges.

Distinguishing decompression from more uncomfortable states of mind:

This discussion isn't to say that a child idling around is always what the child wants or needs at a given time. This distinction is perhaps why I raise the idea of decompression -- it is on first sight hard to tell apart from a child being shy in a new environment, overwhelmed in a new environment, or perhaps situationally distraught (to use camp as an example: a small boy wants to work on electronics, but feels like he can't be in the room all the electronics are in because it's full of really loud kids twice his age and size.)

I think that each of these cases is quite straightforward to tease out by simply talking to a child and seeing what's going on. Children are often shy in a new environment -- particularly one with a foreign set of rules (and in camp's case, an absence of traditional rules and structure) and people and things -- and this is a thing to look out for when children are new in an environment. With most children, their body language and voice will clearly signal a feeling of shyness to a place. The simplest antidote is a patient adult who will happily show them around -- show them what's where, what kind of materials and activites are happening about the site, and introduce them to other people, both children and adults.

Being overwhelmed has the same indications of being shy, but is often a specific response to the size and intensity of things. (Not only is everything new, but there's so much of it and it's so loud!) The best approach I've found is similar to personally orienting a shy child, but often with an aim to find a quiet activity or place to spend some time getting to know the child. Sometimes this means finding a peaceful project, and sometimes it means really walking through the ideas that you can really do or make anything at camp provided that you can figure out how to make it, and step through simple questions along the lines of "Is there anything you'd really like to make?" and see if you can personally start a project with them. I view this as narrowing the focus down -- rather than observing the masses of unbounded energy, working in a smaller mental space of what would you, you specifically, love to do here? What have you been dying to try for weeks but haven't had a chance to?

A distraught child should be able to be discerned through direct questioning. Just by asking what's going on and what they've been upto today, and inviting them to tell you how their day has gone, usually anything important or unresolved will come up. Often this sort of behavior sticks out in a child who is normally quite comfortable but for whatever reason is wandering about from room to room or hall to hall in search of something to do, given that what he really wants to do feels frustratingly inaccessible.

All of these states are ways to distinguish the contentedness of decompression for more disoriented states. All of them look like idle activity, but decompression tends to be characterized by play and relaxing, and the ones described just now tend to carry some sort of unresolved tension ("I don't know what to do here!" "I can't make sense of how much there is to do here!" "I can't do what I want to!")

Broader environmental efforts can play into this dynamic of idle time being healthy rather than tense. Adults themselves not being full of projects to run and conflicts to sort out gives them a chance to have idle conversations with children, which in turn can lead to an adult becoming aware of whether or not child really is happy playing with LEGOs all day. I think that the Internet -- particularly YouTube and addictive point-and-click style web games -- can work as a way for a child to delay this process of wandering about and opening up to their environment and halt the process of figuring out what to do with oneself. This is still just an intuition for me -- and not a tried-and-true fact that I trust completely -- but it seems that as a child's curiousity can be delayed from fully opening when the extremely sensory option of computers-as-games or computers-as-YouTube exists to divert their physical and mental attention.

All of this leads up to, at camp, tell parents that while it's ok with us if their kids do nothing, we will happily check in with a child to see if they're enjoying themselves at camp, and offer activities that connect to their interests (information often supplied by the parents, children themselves, or the child's friends.) We're happy to make sure that a child is comfortable, is engaged, and spend time with them dreaming up new activities and possibilities for what to do with their day. But we won't push it -- if a child is truly content to play with their friend in the park all day, then that's where they should be.