How technology can make our kids better learners: MIT Media Lab’s Mitch Resnick on raising digital creators vs. consumers

Instead of making kindergarten like the rest of school, we need to make the rest of school (indeed, the rest of life) more like kindergarten.” — Mitch Resnick

I have Mitch Resnick (or, more specifically, his published work) to thank for sending me down the rabbit hole of innovation in education a few years ago. Mitch Resnick (aka Dr. Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at MIT’s Media Lab) is a legend in the field of technology education; his aptly named “Lifelong Kindergarten” group of researchers are the brains behind Scratch, the free programming language for kids, and Mindstorms, the programmable version of Lego. Their group’s mission is to develop technology for children to help them “grow up as creative thinkers”.

So how exactly does this work? I discuss his vision and his group’s work in the post below — learning about his views has forced me to re-examine some of my own beliefs about technology in education. Would love to hear your thoughts! Do these ideas resonate with you? Is this preaching to the choir? Gave you some food for thought?

Many thanks for reading!


How we can extend Kindergarten-style creative learning to all ages:

In “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten” Mitch Resnick describes how the kindergarten play approach and materials inspired his group to develop the technological equivalent — tools that allow children to express themselves digitally. I’ve included some highlights of his compelling vision below.

“The traditional kindergarten approach to learning is well-matched to the needs of the current society and should be extended to learners of all ages…. In traditional kindergartens, children are constantly designing, creating, experimenting, and exploring…..The materials vary (finger paint, crayons, bells) and the creations vary (pictures, stories, songs), but the core process is the same.”
Image courtesy: “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten”, 2007, by Mitchel Resnick
“I think of it as a spiraling process in which children imagine what they want to do, create a project based on their ideas, play with their creations, share their ideas and creations with others, reflect on their experiences — all of which leads them to imagine new ideas and new projects.”
“In reality, the steps in the process are not as distinct or sequential as indicated in the diagram. Imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting are mixed together in many different ways. But the key elements are always there, in one form or another.”

Look familiar? Mirrors the design thinking approach, but more playful, and the audience in the kindergarten case is usually the creator him/herself or friends, not clients. He also acknowledges some flexibility in the process, a natural part of children’s play (unlike the stricter design-thinking process).

He continues:

“If this learning approach has been so successful in kindergarten, why hasn’t it been applied in other parts of the educational system? One reason, I believe, is a lack of appreciation for the importance of helping young people develop as creative thinkers. Another reason has to do with the availability of appropriate media and technologies. Wooden blocks and finger paint are great for students working on kindergarten projects and learning kindergarten concepts (like number, shape, size, and color). But as students get older, they want and need to work on more advanced projects and learn more advanced concepts.”
“This is where, in my opinion, digital technologies can play a transformational role in education. I believe that digital technologies, if properly designed and supported, can extend the kindergarten approach, so that learners of all ages can continue to learn in the kindergarten style — and, in the process, continue to develop as creative thinkers.”

He then goes on to describe how, inspired by the best kindergarten materials (blocks for building, crayons for drawing, dolls for role-playing, tiles for making geometric patterns), his group designs technological tools that are not overly constrained and allow children to express themselves in different ways. Tools that allow the creation of a diverse range of projects are ideal, allowing a variety of children’s authentic interests and passions to be expressed. In providing such technological tools, his group hopes to realize what they consider the greatest potential of technology in the educational context.

On the True Potential of Computers in Education (from “Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age”)

The following excerpts highlight the broad potential of computers to help children learn — until educators and parents really look beyond the limited view of computers in the classroom as information delivery devices, communication enablers, or classroom aids (however great their potential is in those areas), the large investment in technology will not bear fruit.

“In most places where new technologies are being used in education today, the technologies are used simply to reinforce outmoded approaches to learning.”
“Over the past fifty years, psychologists and educational researchers, building on the pioneering work of Jean Piaget, have come to understand that learning is not a simple matter of information transmission. Teachers cannot simply pour information into the heads of learners; rather, learning is an active process in which people construct new understandings of the world around them through active exploration, experimentation, discussion, and reflection.”
“Of course, computers are wonderful for transmitting and accessing information, but they are, more broadly, a new medium through which people can create and express. If we use computers simply to deliver information to students, we are missing the revolutionary potential of the new technology for transforming learning and education……Research has shown that many of our best learning experiences come when we are engaged in designing and creating things, especially things that are meaningful either to us or others around us.”
“But until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television, computers will not live up to their full potential. Like finger paint (and unlike television), computers can be used for designing and creating things. In addition to accessing Web pages, people can create their own Web pages. In addition to downloading MP3 music files, people can compose their own music. In addition to playing SimCity, people can create their own simulated worlds.”
“Like finger paint, blocks, and beads, computers can also be used as a “material” for making things — and not just by children, but by everyone. Indeed, the computer is the most extraordinary construction material ever invented, enabling people to create anything from music videos to scientific simulations to robotic creatures. Computers can be seen as a universal construction material, greatly expanding what people can create.”

And finally, a word about Digital Fluency (from “Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age”)

On a related note — is there a difference between digital literacy and fluency? And how important is this? He writes:

“….being digitally fluent involves not only knowing how to use technological tools, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with those tools.”
“Today, discussions about the “digital divide” typically focus on differences in access to computers. That will change. As the costs of computing decline, people everywhere will gain better access to digital technologies. But there is a real risk that only a small handful will be able to use the technologies fluently. In short, the “access gap” will shrink, but a serious “fluency gap” could remain.”

As parents and educators, if we want to support a similar cycle of learning and preserve the creative thinking mindset that is natural to kindergartners, it would serve us well to be mindful of this difference between digital access and digital fluency.

The question remains whether this digital fluency can truly be achieved while using tools created by others (e.g. creating web pages using off-the-shelf solutions or creating simulated worlds within Minecraft) or only by learning how to code oneself. And is it that important for ALL children to be able to create in ALL media, including digital? In Part 2, I’ll take a closer look at the ‘teach all kids to code’ movement (crusade?).

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this reminder from Mitch Resnick from the essay titled “Lifelong Kindergarten”:

“If we want children to develop as creative thinkers, we need to provide them with more opportunities to create.”

— ….both in digital and analog worlds, of course.


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