To conclude the year 2020, I decided to put together quotes from two of the books I very much enjoyed reading, complementing them with a few personal comments. Some of the topics that occupied me in particular during the past twelve months and beyond were (lifelong) learning, teaching, creativity, and education as a whole. This text ended up being somewhat long, but thanks to the quotes being stand-alone, any part can be skipped without loss!
To start off with my most recent read, Lifelong Kindergarten is both a book written by MIT professor Mitchel Resnick as well as the name of his research group that makes part of the MIT Media Lab. While Resnick’s group specializes in learning research as whole, it places emphasis on the use of media and technology in enhancing creative learning experiences. Judging from one of the pictures I found, it must be rather fun to be part of the Lifelong Kindergarten:
But I promised quotes! Here’s one from the first chapters:
With ploughs we can cultivate, with telescopes we can see, with engines we can travel, far beyond the limits of our unassisted bodies. But tools do more than extend our bodies: they expand our minds. Technology facilitates ideas that might otherwise be inconceivable.
The discussion around whether infinite growth — with technology playing its part — ultimately does more harm than good is an important one. However, on an individual level, the tools and scientific knowledge ranging from a simple hammer all the way to sophisticated computers certainly enhance our environment and daily lives. They make the pursuit of ideas easier and potentially further reaching, especially when thinking of modern technology such as the internet.
In regards to learning, you could also consider the process of creating new technology to be a learning experience in itself! And that’s exactly where creativity and creative learning come into play:
The Creative Learning Spiral is the engine of creative thinking. As kindergarten children go through the spiral, they develop and refine their abilities as creative thinkers. They learn to develop their own ideas, try them out, experiment with alternatives, get input from others, and generate new ideas based on their experiences. Unfortunately, after kindergarten, most schools shift away from the Creative Learning Spiral. Students spend much of their time sitting at desks, filling out worksheets, and listening to lectures — whether from a teacher in the classroom or a video on the computer. Too often, schools focus on delivering instruction and information rather than supporting students in the creative learning process.
The Creative Learning Spiral, another of Resnick’s concepts, encompasses the building blocks imagine, create, play, share and reflect (for an extensive description of what each entails, see the corresponding, very concise 6-page paper available here).
What I want to pick up on here is the one-way street of teaching described in the quote above, which has become especially apparent to me lately, not least because of the global pandemic. In connection to the work of the Lifelong Kindergarten group, I would love to see things like Scratch used more often in schools and (online) classrooms. Looking at the research in the fields of educational and learning sciences (some of which is mentioned in my previous article, Game-Based Learning And 21st Century Skills), there really is only little if not no reason for many of the educational systems to hold on to their traditional ways of going about teaching and learning.
On a similar note, other approaches naturally come with their own challenges:
In her studies, Karen [Karen Brennan, Harvard University] found that there are problems with both too much structure and too little structure. With too much structure, young people can’t work on what they want to work on. With too little structure, many aren’t able to come up with ideas or follow through on ideas. Karen rejects the idea that structure and agency should be seen in opposition to each other. She argues for the “best of both worlds,” proposing learning environments that “employ structure in a way that amplifies learner agency.”
Reflecting back on my own (ongoing) experience with self-assigned learning on platforms such as Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare, it is relatively easy for a lack of structure to emerge in such environments. I imagine that with COVID, this has been one of the main challenges for many students throughout all stages of education, and might just continue to be so for the coming years. Resnick suggests and employs some interesting solutions in his book, such as Computer Clubhouses. While such an approach to STEM education might translate relatively well to an online setting, non-STEM subjects seem to present more of a challenge.
Nonetheless, many institutions and businesses are putting much thought and effort towards these issues (as solving them is also financially rewarding, as can be seen on the example of Zoom). If you’re interested in reading more on that, I have mentioned other promising examples of educational software and tools in an earlier text of mine, Walking a Tightrope: A closer look at Microsoft Education.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”
The second book I’d like to mention and comment on is “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, where Richard Feynman describes some of his memories and other parts of his biography. The Nobel Prize-winning professor of Physics was well known for his engaging and ‘unusual’ way of teaching and explaining complex topic––part of his legacy are the highly praised Feynman Lectures on Physics as well as the very popular Feynman Technique.
If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.
What I find interesting about this particular quote is how this was (and somewhat still is) a rather counter-intuitive way of thinking about ‘understanding’ a concept or topic. Why should you give elementary components a significant amount of thought? After all, you would not have been able to understand the subsequent, more complex components of a topic if you hadn’t understood their building blocks, right?
I believe the crux of the matter is well illustrated by this next quote:
… After the lecture, I talked to a student: “You take all those notes — what do you do with them?” “Oh, we study them,” he says. “We’ll have an exam.” “What will the exam be like?” “Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.” He looks at his notebook and says, “‘When are two bodies equivalent?’ And the answer is, ‘Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.’ ” So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.
Note that this particular interaction took place sometime around the early 1950s (!), when Feynman was on a sabbatical in Brazil teaching at the Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas. But I believe that this way of learning is still very much present today, even all the way up in higher education. In fact––and this is not much of a controversial take, as far as I’m concerned––, the way exams are structured in many educational systems, rote learning is often encouraged. Thus, my personal takeaway is to even more so challenge my own ‘understanding’ in ways similar to what Feynman suggested. More importantly, this approach does not have to be exclusive to the school context, but may also include questions such as: Why are days ‘shorter’ during winter than summer? What does exponential growth mean in the context of a pandemic? It is surprising how good we can be at fooling ourselves into thinking that we understand such things, even at the most basic level!
And lastly, to end on the note of (not) fooling yourself:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist.
Although not everyone is a scientist, many people go on to be an expert in some way or form. It can be very easy to settle for one specific perspective or line of argument once you feel you’ve put sufficient thought, studying, and/or research into something. But even if so, if not all the more, there is value in continuously challenging one’s own ‘understanding’, just like Feynman describes. It is also for this reason that I plan to keep doing these writings, occasionally coming back to topics I had already visited at an earlier point, and to hopefully keep discovering new insights by doing just that!
As always, thanks for reading (especially if you got this far), and happy new year!