Reflecting on Lifelong Kindergarten

September 19th, 2017

I just read Mitch Resnick's book Lifelong Kindergarten, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning and play and how they intersect. I wanted to write down some of the parts that I found to be the most thought provoking. This post will touch on the approach we take to supporting creative learning at littleBits, as well as the Anji Play method and constructivism, which are all things I think a lot about in my work. This post will be fairly scattered. It's mostly just a documentation of my reactions. You can assume that anything I don't list here, I probably agree with 100%, so it's not super interesting to write about. Major thanks to Mitch Resnick for writing this amazing book and all of the work that went into it. It's a major source of inspiration for my work at littleBits.

Imagine: In our example, the children start by imagining a fantasy castle—and the family that lives inside.
Create: It’s not enough to imagine. The children turn their ideas into action, creating a castle, a tower, a story.
Play: The children are constantly tinkering and experimenting with their creations, trying to build a taller tower or adding new twists and turns to the story.
Share: One group of children collaborates on building the castle, another group collaborates on creating the story, and the two groups share ideas with one another. Each new addition to the castle suggests a new story and vice versa.
Reflect: When the tower collapses, the teacher comes over and encourages the children to reflect on why it fell. How could they make a more stable tower? The teacher shows them pictures of skyscrapers, and the children notice that the bottoms of the buildings are wider than the tops. They decide to rebuild their tower with a wider base than before.

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (p. 12). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

The first thing I found interesting was the Creative Learning Spiral that Resnick described. For anyone familiar with littleBits, we have our own: Create, Play, Remix, Share. It actually addresses two of the main issues with the littleBits invention cycle. "Create" can be really hard for beginner inventors because it combines both the concept of brainstorming, and then bringing those ideas into the real world. By splitting them into distinct steps it allows the brainstorming to be a lot more divergent of a process (separate form the convergent process of making something in the real world). Another issue with the littleBits invention cycle that this improves upon is the confusion of what remix is. Since remix is just starting to invent again, and it's best to share your process at every step, simply repeating the cycle after each act of invention clarifies that ideally you do the whole cycle over and over again. And what's nice about a spiral is that it gets bigger over time. Your project is more awesome the more cycles you do, and that is actually made visible by this graphic. It's not doing the same thing over and over again (boring!)

Peers: Creativity is a social process, with people collaborating, sharing, and building on one another’s work. By integrating programming with an online community, Scratch is designed for social interaction. MahoAshley took full advantage of the social side of Scratch, sharing her expertise with the community (via tutorials) and asking other community members for input (via contests and comments).

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (pp. 16-17). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

In Resnick's framework of the four P's of creative learning, I found that the definition of Peers left me with a lot of questions. In the interviews speckled throughout the book, it is very clear that Scratch is a welcoming environment for both introverts and extroverts, but I think that the description of the value of peers somewhat oversimplifies the benefit of social interaction as it relates to the construction of knowledge. Not all people gain energy from social interaction. Peers to me seems to be a bit of a stand-in for reflection and sharing, which sometimes exists as a conversation between two people, but other times can be between a person and themselves. Perhaps we could use the word "Perspective" instead to encapsulate getting an outside perspective on your work, whether it comes from asking someone else for their perspective, or stepping back to renew your own perspective. Maybe it's less catchy though... I think it's appropriate to echo a Kate Brennan thought in the book that structure is good for creative learning as long as it supports learner agency - and I think an important component of that is allowing children to work in a way that gives them the most energy.

In one classroom I visited, there was a large display at the front of the room, and each student had a network-connected laptop. The teacher asked questions, and the students entered responses on their laptops. On the large display, for all to see, was a listing of which students had answered the question correctly, and how quickly each student had responded. Students were awarded points based on their speed and accuracy, and the display showed a running tally of their scores. The software was well-designed, and the teacher was happy to have easy access to well-organized data on student performance. I have no doubt that some of the students found this game-like approach very motivating. But I’m also sure that some students found it very discouraging and disempowering. And the activity put an emphasis on questions that can be answered quickly with right and wrong answers—certainly not the type of questions that I would prioritize in a classroom.

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (pp. 22-23). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I think that this is a great example of the difference between gamification and game-based learning. I want to provide a little bit more meat on this example to show what a game-based learning looks like. One important distinction is that it is impossible to design a game-based learning experience without knowing what the content of activity is. Are they studying history or mathematics? In a game-based environment, such as running a simulation of a city to learn about the economy, students are able to play with concepts, getting feedback on the results of their actions, and being able to develop an embodied understanding of what does and doesn't work through experience. There are still "wrong" answers in game based learning, but the way you discover their "wrong-ness" is through experiencing the output yourself, not by some other person telling you that you are wrong. For example, Roller Coaster Tycoon, when I charge visitors to use the bathroom, barf starts showing up all over my park, and then I have to pay the cleaning staff more money. It doesn't just pop up a modal that says "This is too expensive!" Rather, it shows me evidence and waits for me to draw those conclusions. Which is by the way, how the world works. :)

According to Piaget’s constructivist theory of learning, children are active builders of knowledge, not passive recipients. Children don’t get ideas, they make ideas.

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (pp. 36-37). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I really appreciated this very simplified explanation of constructivism. In order to deepen my understanding I want to attach an example to it. When a student sees a feather falling in a vacuum tube at the same speed as a rock, they are surprised, because previously they have seen feathers fall very slowly for their whole lives. The concept of "gravity" is then reinforced by the connection between all those memories, like the opening scene to Forrest Gump, and this new memory, which almost seems to contradict them. This is something that Resnick builds on later in discussing the value of Passion - not just to motivate students to get to the end of difficult problems, but also because concepts that students are passionate about are intrinsically more connected to different types of knowledge, and therefore fertile grounds to add new knowledge. I'll return to this subject later.

The creator of this project was clearly developing her voice with Scratch—learning to express herself in new ways and integrating coding into the flow of her everyday life. In the future, I believe it will become as natural for young people to express themselves through coding as it is through writing.

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (p. 50). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I want to critique this point of view because it's one I've heard a lot and find it to be slightly exclusionary. My critique of this analogy is that it sets me up to believe the way the code is written (object oriented v. functional for example) to be a choice of style, whereas in the example shown, the interaction is the choice of style. The analog of writing in the example here seems to be interaction design more so than coding - I'm not sold on the concept of developing a coding "voice" being something beneficial to non-programmers. I think that the key lies in the phrase "express themselves through coding" I suggest it be re-written to "express themselves through technology" which does not necessarily involve coding.

This terminology would be inclusive of formats such as video editing, which was previously a very taxing technical effort. The fact that people can express themselves with video much more easily and with a greater emphasis on creativity (see: snapchat) does not make it "less" technological. It is just working on a higher level of abstraction. Perhaps, what Resnick is saying is that we should accept lower levels of abstraction as creative acts more readily. I agree with that, but I contend that "creative expression" exists primarily on the level of designing the technology and less on the technical implementation. I've made littleBits circuits that I found poetic, like a power-inverter-buzzer (the buzzer remains silent, symbolism for self-control), but I find this level of creativity to be inaccessible to most people in comparison to making a creative projects with littleBits - like an art bot.

On the surface, this approach might seem to make sense. But when students solve sets of disconnected problems, they often end up with disconnected knowledge, without an understanding of why they were learning it or how to apply it in new situations. The project-based approach is much different. As students work on projects, they encounter concepts in a meaningful context, so the knowledge is embedded in a rich web of associations. As a result, students are better able to access and apply the knowledge in new situations.

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (pp. 53-54). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I found this to be one of the most powerful of the ideas in Resnick's book. I'll return to the subject of constructivism, and that subjects of great interest are intrinsically rich full of connections for knowledge to be constructed from. Let's imagine a kid, Jason (okay I'm basing this on my brother) who is obsessed with dinosaurs. His love of dinosaurs spans from scientific understanding to aesthetic and systems thinking. Jason can be both right and left brained when thinking about dinosaurs because he sees dinosaurs as a dynamic subject that touches all aspects of life.

Let's imagine in math class, Jason is supposed to learn about fractions. Let's also assume that a study has been published showing that the best way to teach fractions in a way that the most students will understand is to talk about the ratio of boys and girls in a classroom (problematic for a whole host of other reasons). If the teacher teaches fractions in the later subject, something that Jason really doesn't care about, he will construct "fractions" as a concept that is related to "numbers" "math" and "boys and girls" and things like "my classroom" and "counting". If the teacher created an environment for Jason and other students like him to learn about dinosaurs and the food chain, and understand how dinosaurs at the top exist in smaller proportions of the greater population, Jason could understand fractions as a node in a network of many more concepts like "dinosaurs" "hunting" "survival" "population" "the food chain" "numbers" "carnivores" "omnivores" and many many more.

Thinking back to Mindstorms, for Papert gears served as a powerful tool for him to think with. Not just because he liked gears, but also because gears were connected to so many other concepts in his life. I catch myself saying frequently "Oh, it's a rectangle square thing" because I am a visual-spatial thinker and for me the concept of a square being a rectangle, but all rectangles not being square is far more graspable and relatable to other rectangle-square relationships than the concepts of hyponym and hypernym which might be the best way for a linguist to understand the relationship.

So to summarize, knowledge that is connected to passion is not just more fun for the learner, it's also deeper because knowledge is constructed from previous knowledge, and our passions are more connected to our lives than things that bore us. Sorry to be redundant, but Resnick goes on to say:

When people work on projects that they are interested in, it seems pretty obvious that they’ll be more motivated and willing to work longer and harder—but that’s not all. Their passion and motivation make them more likely to connect with new ideas and develop new ways of thinking. Their investment in interest pays off with new knowledge.

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (p. 68). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

In her studies, Karen 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.”

Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (MIT Press) (p. 82). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I think that this is a super elegant way of describing the role of structure with creativity. The OED definition for agency includes "4. Ability or capacity to act or exert power; active working or operation; action, activity. 5a. Action or intervention producing a particular effect; means, instrumentality, mediation." Agency is not the same thing as power. It is power combined with intent. Similarly to how game-based learning can't be designed without understanding the content, structures for creative learning can't be designed without understanding the intent of learners.

The last subject of the book that I want to talk about here is about the role of an educator in a creative learning environment. This is something I am still learning a lot about so I'm not totally sure of my stance, but I think that the Anji Play method has some promising results that challenge some of the underpinning assumptions of most constructivist learning models. In Reggio Emilia and Montessori for example, it is acknowledged that knowledge is constructed from experiences and other knowledge. It is the test of the educator to architect/plan the process of adding nodes to that network of information to create the most ideal pathway that results in rich knowledge that is situated in related concepts. In the Anji Play method, this process of adding nodes to the network of knowledge is also left to children to construct. I think that one could argue that this allows learners to "think about thinking" on a much more meaningful level. When educators choose the way that learners discover topics, they don't necessarily rob the student the opportunity to learn it on their own in my opinion, but I think they rob the student an opportunity to learn about how they learn.

In his book, Resnick points out that "passion and motivation make [learners] more likely to connect with new ideas and develop new ways of thinking" I see the Anji Play model as extending this thinking from knowledge (relate new knowledge to previous knowledge based on passion and experience) to learning (relate new ways of learning to previous ways of learning based on passion and experience).

I'm not arguing for less structure at all. Anji Play is a highly structured learning environment, it is just distinct from other models in that it considers the development of learning methods to be a within the purview of learner agency. Still working through this though and I definitely need to see Anji Play in person ASAP to develop my perspective on this.

Seriously impressed by anyone who read all of this! please check out Mitch Resnick's book!