Lifelong Kindergarten - Mitchel Resnick

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"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." - Plato

Mitchel Resnick famously proclaims that kindergarten is the greatest invention in the past 1000 years (Freobel, 1837), and by the end of this book that statement might not sound so preposterous. Resnick, a co-head of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab (spin-off companies here) that also developed Scratch*, a free visual programming language, drives home the importance of creativity and play in today's world in Lifelong Kindergarten. 

Scratch (you can play with it here) combines programming logic and principles with a friendly drag-and-drop interface, and is actually used in the first weeks of Harvard's CS50. Resnick disperses interviews throughout his book with people - especially children - who've used it, as well as former members of the Computer Clubhouse, a network (he started) of successful after-school learning programs.

In today's increasingly automated world, Resnick thoughts on creativity are extremely timely: according to Dell 85% of jobs in 2030 haven't been invented yet. Although 85% is most likely a exaggeration, the underlying conclusion that tomorrow's workforce needs to be prepared for an uncertain future should not be ignored. And with regards to this, Resnick surmises that we are woefully unprepared.

Though technology (an interesting definition of it being 'anything invented after you are born') can be a great enabler of teaching, it often hasn't been used in the right way. For example, when Seymour Papert, a pioneer in the field of computer-aided instruction, created a programming language for children, Logo, thousands of schools throughout the 80s taught millions of students how to program with it . However, they taught students Logo as an end in itself (i.e. by testing, and therefore rewarding, proficiency -- an experience that painfully mirrors my own experience in formal Computer Science classes), and "not as a way for students to express themselves and to explore what Seymour called 'powerful ideas'" (39).

At this point, Resnick's thesis of what learning should look like becomes clearly illuminated: 

Creative Learning, a process grounded in 4 principles: (1) Projects, (2) Passion, (3) Peers, and (4) Play,

which aim to

engage participants in the Creative Learning Spiral, an iterative spiral of imagine>create>play>share>reflect

And his thesis is unmistakably close to the truth (or as close as it gets) because it relies on two powerful principles, those of iteration and intrinsic motivation.

  • Iteration: in both Ryan Holiday's Ego is the Enemy (notes) and Philip Tetlock's Superforecasting (notes), iteration is the key process that the authors conclude enabled historical figures and successful forecasters respectively to succeed

  • Intrinsic motivation: as research has shown, we quickly become inured to extrinsic motivators (excellent summary of Daniel Pink's book Drive here), and so developing intrinsic motivation is the only way to sustainably maintain any habit

And the habit in consideration is that of creative thinking, a lifelong skill that very closely resembles that of tinkering, a principle Nassim Taleb references in Antifragile (notes) and attributes to many inventions. It's a skill that Resnick writes is mostly about persistence. (Another thing that the modern education system doesn't motivate very well)

Persistence is difficult to nurture because it inherently involves permitting failure, something (pre-)modern parenting books with their emphasis on developing self-esteem in children abhorred. This societal perspective is self-perpetuating, however, and Resnick finds particular fault with modern children's toys which encourage consumption and not production -- he's a big fan of Lego though.

"Ask not what your toy can do for your child; ask what your child can do with the toy." (41)

Case in point, when asked to speak at a conference, Resnick changed his presentation after a presenter from an educational publishing company presented on the immersive online world they were developing and described the user experience thus: "... you will consume these narrative missions ..." (44). Resnick, instead showed other conference attendees the immersive worlds (same fictional universe) that users of Scratch created.

These are the two approaches to storytelling: (1) children participating in other stories, (2) children creating their own stories.

But the same two approaches can be seen in personalized learning: (1) children consuming information thrown at them until they achieve somebody else's standards of proficiency, (2) children finding the information that interests them about the projects that interest them to share with the members of their community that they respect.

Sadly, despite all the resources and research at our disposal, education today sits closer to (1) than (2). MOOCs may hold the answer, but achievement tests in todays form certainly do not (will update after finishing The Testing Charade).

The latter model of education is something Sal Khan is trying to foster at his new physical school, the Khan Lab School (great article, notes on 2012 book)

In brief, Resnick suggests that education should be 'close-started' and 'open-ended', have a low floor and high ceiling, encourage strong community, be centered around self-motivated projects, and if you're lucky you will raise a generation of lifelong learners, or kindergarteners. 


Ten tips for parents and teachers (abridged, 168-173)

  1. Imagine: show examples to spark ideas

  2. Imagine: encourage messing around

  3. Create: provide a wide variety of materials

  4. Create: embrace all types of making

  5. Play: emphasize process, not product

  6. Play: extend time for projects

  7. Share: play the role of matchmaker

  8. Share: get involved as a collaborator

  9. Reflect: ask authentic questions

  10. Reflect: share your own reflections

Ten tips for designers and developers (abridged, 174-179)

  1. Design for designers (the children)

  2. Support low floors and high ceilings (low barriers to entry, but potential for mastery)

  3. Widen the walls (embed generality)

  4. Connect with both interests and ideas

  5. Prioritize simplicity

  6. Understand (deeply) the people you're designing for

  7. Invent things that you want to use yourself

  8. Put together an interdisciplinary design team

  9. Control the design, but leverage the crowd

  10. Iterate, iterate- then iterate again