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!

Nitasha

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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Are our children’s book shelves diverse enough?

Growing up in India, as solidly part of the majority (at least in terms of race and religion), I never fully appreciated the importance of diversity in my book choices or indeed felt the sort of alienation that children’s book author Grace Lin suffered growing up Chinese in a predominantly white American town (which she describes in this wonderful TED talk).

Now living in a multicultural society (with multicultural children!), I can’t ignore the importance of providing diversity in my kids’ reading choices — stories of different races, religions and nationalities, of course, but also of disability and economic status, and eventually, sexuality. It’s also critical to provide stories with diverse heroes where the theme is NOT the issue of diversity (e.g. black characters in a civil rights book).

Even if your children are part of a majority culture, enriching their world view through exposure to different experiences maybe more essential now than ever before. More than fifty years ago, former President of the International Reading Association, Nancy Larrick, wrote an article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” in the Saturday Review, and noted:

“Across the country, …nonwhite children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them. There is no need to elaborate upon the damage — much of it irreparable — to [the child’s] personality. But the impact of all-white books upon white children is probably even worse. Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation.”


My picks for essential reads on this topic:

1. The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books

Attempts to diversify lily-white kid lit have been, well, complicated.

By Dashka Slater in Mother Jones. Sep/Oct 2016.

 

Why read this? A great read which will bring you up to speed with the issue facing the publishing industry (and us, as book buying parents).

A couple of excerpts:

“Within five years, more than half of America’s children and teenagers will have at least one nonwhite parent.”

“Writers and scholars have bemoaned the whiteness of children’s books for decades, but the topic took on new life in 2014, when the influential black author Walter Dean Myers and his son, the author and illustrator Christopher Myers, wrote companion pieces in the New York Times’ Sunday Review asking, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” A month later, unwittingly twisting the knife, the industry convention BookCon featured an all-white, all-male panel of “superstar” children’s book authors. Novelist Ellen Oh and like-minded literary types responded with a Twitter campaign — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — that spawned more than 100,000 tweets.”

We Need Diverse Books has expanded into a grassroots organization that promotes diversity in children’s books and is a great resource for diverse children’s books of all kinds.


2. #1000BlackGirlBooks Campaign Expands

By Tammy La Gorce in the New York Times. Sep 6, 2016.

Why read this? If you haven’t already heard of the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign started by Marley Dias in 2015 (while in sixth grade after she got “sick of reading about white boys and their dogs”), this NYT article summarizes it nicely.

An excerpt:

“[Marley] also thought it was important for people outside her demographic to get a sense of what it’s like to be a black girl, much the same way she had gotten an inkling of how it feels to be a white boy by reading books like “Old Yeller.”

“We have different stories, different points of view, different issues in the world,” she said. “Other people should be able see that.” ”


3. Five in the Colonies: Enid Blyton’s Sri Lankan Adventures

By Randy Boyagoda in the Paris Review. June 25, 2012

Why read this? My personal favorite (and a must-read for all those who grew up in Britain’s former colonies on a diet of Enid Blyton), this one captures many of our experiences reading Enid Blyton’s adventures of middle-class white English kids while growing up brown in the Indian sub-continent. The Sri Lankan-Canadian author discusses the complicated feelings many writers have toward their own childhood immersion in Blyton’s foreign world and the resulting rejection they felt toward their own childhood selves and surroundings.

For me, part of the escapist enjoyment of these books was the exotic setting where children ran around unsupervised in the countryside eating sweets called humbugs and sandwiches instead of rotis and rice. Besides, most of us (urban Indian kids whose first language was English) had virtually no other choices in children’s books while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. And the reality was that we found stories set in rural India (such as the brilliant R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days) just as exotic as Blyton’s stories set in 1950s England. Still, it’s certainly worth considering whether our own world views were shaped by this childhood immersion into a strange, foreign, white world, and I’d hesitate to let my children read them without some explanation.

An excerpt:

“But because [Blyton’s] success depended upon such patterned writing, she was also accused by librarians, teachers, and academics of relentlessly dulling the imaginations of her young readers, and of unjustly encouraging those who were reading her from abroad to make identifications that race, geography, history, and politics preemptively denied them. This certainly seems to have been the case for the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; in a 2006 interview with The Times, she explained that her development as a writer was stunted by her early reading: “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

“Intellectually, I sympathize with these postcolonial renderings of Blyton’s invidious effects upon young imaginations, but my own experience isn’t captured by their accounts.”


Finally, it’s encouraging that most schools and libraries have made it a priority to diversify their book shelves. And I sympathize with the challenge of finding high quality children’s books with diverse characters, but given the political climate we find ourselves in, it seems like an effort worth making!

Thanks for reading!


Resources and further reading:

  1. Kitaab World: I just came across this terrific new online source for South Asian books, puzzles and toys, based in the US

2. This NPR story has more on the disconnect between kids books content and the market:

As Demographics Shift, Kids’ Books Stay Stubbornly White

3. The Walter Dean Myers opinion piece in the New York Times

Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?

4. From KQED’s Mindshift:

25 Books That Diversify Kids’ Reading Lists This Summer

5. Another great resource for diverse books:

50 Mighty Girl Books Celebrating Diversity and Acceptance

On the importance of reading aloud to kids (even after they’re reading independently)….

“We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.” — Neil Gaiman on the Future of Reading and Libraries

Like most parents of pre-literate children, we read aloud daily to our 6 and 4 year old kids as a part of our evening routine. The benefits of reading aloud to this set are well known; access to the world of stories being the most obvious, parental connection and shared enjoyment of stories being others. Fun aside, reading aloud is widely recognized as the single most important activity for literacy acquisition (SO SERIOUS, but still, no surprise there!).

But what about older children who can read independently? They are often eager to read alone, and can be impatient with the slower pace of read-alouds, making them reluctant listeners. But it’s increasingly acknowledged that even fluent readers gain a tremendous amount from being read to. As Jim Trelease, the author of the Read Aloud Handbook points out, a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his or her comprehension level until around 8th grade. Reading aloud to this literate set can provide access to more sophisticated literature than they’re capable of comfortably tackling themselves, not to mention strengthen their listening skills and patience (which may have amazing real world benefits!).

As the passionate TEDx speaker below and the author of this piece on KQED’s MindShift describe, there are other reasons it’s a good idea to continue reading with children as long as they will let us. For one, the physical closeness that reading aloud usually brings creates an effortless intimacy (already something that I appreciate with our no-longer-snuggly six year old). We can ensure reading is a fun, shared experience that is joyful, rather than stressful (particularly important for beginning or struggling readers). It also offers parents an entry point to help children think through big issues — social, emotional, or geopolitical — which are challenging to address through direct discussion (or the snoring parental lecture!).

Choosing books for the family read-aloud also lets parents introduce books that kids wouldn’t pick themselves (while we get to sneakily broaden their horizons — I’m looking at you, Thomas the Tank Engine and Star Wars!). At our house, we usually let each child choose one picture book (or section of a long chapter book) and choose one ourselves (it takes anywhere from 15–30 minutes total for all three choices). For us, reading aloud is also an easy way to introduce French and Indian stories, places and culture to our children. Just 15 minutes a day can make a difference!

An area where reading aloud to older children can be more directly helpful is when reading the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. As Jessica Lahey, educator and author notes in the Atlantic, she often reads aloud in her 7th and 8th grade classrooms, because “it’s the best way to ease students into challenging language and rhetoric.” Listening is also no doubt the best way to encounter poetry and verse, and language such as Shakespeare’s, meant for performance.

We’re all on board with why reading aloud to our kids is important; here are five best practice reminders for how, from The Read Aloud Handbook:

  1. Begin reading aloud to children at birth (American Association of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians promote reading to children from infancy).
  2. Before beginning, always say the name of the book, the author and illustrator. (I only started this recently, but it’s amazing how excited the kids get when they recognize a familiar author.)
  3. The first time you read a book, ask “What do you think this is going to be about?” (I rarely do this, or really discuss the stories much, but will try and remind myself to do this and also take a moment for discussion at the end).
  4. The most common mistake in reading aloud is reading too fast. (Guilty as charged!). Slow down enough so children have enough time to look at pictures (if there are any) and more importantly, to build mental pictures of what they’ve heard.
  5. It’s ok if very young children (or older ones!) can’t focus for too long. Sometimes, letting them doodle or build with Lego while listening can help.

And most important….Focus on the fun!

As Lucy Calkins notes in her inspiring book “Raising Lifelong Learners”, “We must stop pointing at and calling attention to every word as we read it, stop nudging our kids to read part of the book themselves, stop instructing them on vocabulary words, stop checking that the story means the same to them as it does to us. In short, we must stop grilling them with little questions…when I read aloud, my goal is to snuggle around the warm glow of a story.

Personally, I just can’t resist the warm glow of a story myself. The opportunity to read all the children’s classics I never had access to and experience them for the first time along with my kids is too good to pass up! Happy Reading everyone (and thanks for reading this)!

Nitasha

What are some favorite read-alouds at your house? Do you think reading to independent readers is important? or a recipe for disaster? Was reading aloud a part of your own childhood?

Love to hear your thoughts, as always!

Great reads about story-telling and the importance of reading aloud:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/jun/04/fiction

Storytelling for adults makes a comeback: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/06/storytelling-back-in-fashion

More on the benefits of reading aloud to older kids here

Some great read-aloud book lists:

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2013/dec/09/book-doctor-reading-aloud

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/may/27/top-10-books-to-read-aloud-to-children-william-sutcliffe

Suggestions for exciting read-alouds without character voices here

Two great listens:

How to Get Teens to Read: August 24, 2016 On Point episode with Tom Ashbrook and guest David Denby, New Yorker writer and author of Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. Great reminder of how the focus on pleasure is the key to raising a reader!

The Father-Daughter Reading Streak that lasted nearly 9 years — NPR’s story on Alice Ozma and The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared.

Yale Child Study Center’s Erika Christakis on why most Preschool ‘Crafts’ are counterfeit and serve dull and simplistic goals

Like many parents, I’ve felt a vague sense of panic about the cookie-cutter arts and crafts projects that most young children are introduced to in preschool. The act of gluing together pre-cut shapes and googly eyes to create the same final product as all your classmates seems to provide little more than an opportunity to practice motor skills and the ability to follow instructions (oh and to sit in a chair long enough to complete the task!). These ‘make and takes’ (as an arts educator once described them to me) were one reason we chose a Reggio Emilia -inspired preschool for our kids.

Through the preschool and the wonderful Artful Parent book and blog, I began to value the process, not simply the product of our preschoolers’ creative output. BUT I struggled with this shift in focus from product to process nearly as much. A simplistic “process not product” approach leaves parents and teachers paralyzed by an “anything goes” and “it’s all art” mentality, making it difficult to formulate meaningful feedback, or to help children develop specific skills or learn how to use art tools for genuine self-expression.

So I was relieved that Erika Christakis, of the Yale Child Study Center and an experienced preschool educator (and parent), addressed this issue in a chapter titled “Natural Born Artists” in her new book The Importance of Being Little (February 2016).

She writes,

“The problem with our catchy [‘process, not product’] phrase is that [it] doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s encouraging that we no longer force every child to produce in lockstep the exact same construction-paper Thanksgiving turkey. Even the dreariest early childhood programs have generally moved beyond pure mimicry as a pedagogic strategy, and one of the basic evaluation criteria for preschool pedagogy is the absence of a model of what each art product is supposed to look like.”

And thankfully, she provides some thoughts on how to emphasize process without abandoning constructive guidance and leadership:

“The irony never ceases to amaze me: educators are willing to provide direct instruction in almost every imaginable arena except teaching children how to use art tools, the one set of tools that all preliterate children should know how to use but might actually have trouble figuring out on their own. We hide our lack of leadership behind the guise of fostering self-expression when, in reality, we haven’t given preschoolers the tools and space to express themselves!”

“But imagine what happens,” she adds, “when a teacher treats a substance like real clay deliberately, showing the children how to attach two pieces of clay together by making a wet substance called “slip”. She could show them how to hold the cutting and shaping tools and how to put the clay away and keep it covered so it won’t dry out, inviting the children to understand its properties and how they change under different conditions, experimenting with more or less water, more or less pressure – all before even thinking about making something out of it. This process takes time and requires confidence in the teacher and the child.”

“The purpose of this exercise is not to teach children how to make clay alligators and coffee mugs. The purpose is to teach children a predictable cognitive sequence they can apply when they encounter anything new: Observe, question, explore, reflect. Repeat.”

It’s critical to pay attention to this with preschool-age children, because as children get older, the majority get more goal-oriented and creatively inhibited. I’ve heard many arts educators bemoan the fact that by the time children reach middle school their creative confidence is often very low. At home, I’ve seen our 5 year old already focus her art making on the product and on adult expectations (because of her more traditional preschool start? her intrinsic goal-oriented nature?), compared to our 4 year old, who is still happy to make meaning from his elaborate color creations that have no identifiable shape.

Studies using measures of creativity have shown that creativity drops most significantly between kindergarten and third grade. Older children often provide expected responses and stop before original ideas emerge due to peer or adult acceptance pressures. And even if a child is lucky enough to be in a program that supports creative learning, it’s worth keeping Erika Christakis’ reminder in mind, that:

“…there are no limits to how [you] interact with [your] children away from preschool. Studies show that even the best teachers have a relatively small impact on children’s outcomes compared to genetic, familial and environmental influences.”

There’s so much more to discuss about this topic (and Erika Christakis’ book), but for now, I’m working on the first step: encouraging more authentic art making processes for my kids and letting them explore a variety of high quality materials to make something that has meaning for them.

Thanks for reading!

For a nice, direct summary of Christakis’ chapter on Natural Born Artists, see “Why Preschool Crafts are a Total Waste of Time” by Melissa Dahl in NYmag.com’s Science of Us.

 

 

 

How Design Thinking Can Transform Your Child’s Creativity

What’s the bottom line?

Design thinking can be a powerful tool for innovation. While creators in many fields use some variation of this methodology already, it’s worth considering it in the context of children, in whom executive function skills (higher-order skills such as planning and organizing) are at a formative stage.

Why now?

As IDEO CEO Tim Brown acknowledged in a recent HBR article, design thinking is no longer the fresh, new approach it was a decade ago. With entities as bureaucratic as governments and schools implementing it, it has spread far beyond its initial domain of product design (arguably losing its street cred along the way). But design thinking has not yet become entrenched in the mindsets of our youngest creators, for whom it could be a particularly powerful tool for creating and solution-finding.

What is it again, exactly?

Design thinking is a mindset for innovation, popularized by the design firm IDEO and Stanford’s d.school (both founded by David Kelley). In a nutshell: a process for delivering creative solutions. While most frequently applied to product design, design thinking can be a powerful framework for problem-solving and creating anything. It’s been around since the 1990s, has already helped hundreds of businesses innovate, and is now poised to do the same in fields as far-removed as healthcare, education and social enterprise.

While there is an ongoing debate about its relevance and effectiveness, and following the process in a limited, dogmatic way is likely counter-productive, I believe it is still an approach that can prove useful to parents and educators in raising lifelong creators.

The process:

                                                                              Design Thinking. Image courtesy IDEO

While design thinking encompasses more than the step-wise process above, let’s focus on this framework for now. Each step adds unique value when designing products and services to address the needs of specific users. Empathizing with the end user, defining the problem based on an understanding of users’ needs, ideating by generating a large quantity of possible solutions, rapid prototyping and then testing prototypes to generate feedback allows for an iterative creative process. As far as design projects are concerned, implementing each step in the process can help children find solutions to a variety of problems.

What if they’re not working on a design challenge? 

For more open-ended projects of self-expression such as making art, the latter three steps, re-phrased as Ideate → Create → Reflect provide a more general framework, which most creators probably use already (instinctively or intentionally). While this is not the same as design thinking, having an iterative process with some of the same core steps seems essential to successful and sustained creativity. The methodology, particularly if practiced with intention, can bring focus and discipline to any project and help creators of all ages.

Ideating — brainstorming many ideas, and documenting them — is a useful starting point for any project. Creating using the mindset of rapid prototyping (in the case of art or other creative work  —  generating several drafts, sketches or models) can help children cycle through the process faster and overcome perfectionist tendencies. Reflecting is an essential step which develops critical thinking, and without which learning is incomplete.

Why are these processes important for children?

Besides the immediate benefit of increasing the efficiency and quality of the output, there are likely long term advantages to using this approach, particularly when incorporated from a young age. The design thinking process can empower children by providing an active, problem-solving toolkit, which they can then apply to find solutions to a wide range of problems. On a related note, it can help instill a ‘maker mindset’ which will be increasingly important in the future.

Learning to reflect is arguably the most important step in the learning process, and particularly easy to overlook with young children (a problem compounded by their prolific output!). But, as John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience; rather we learn from reflecting on experience”. This isn’t always easy to do (even for adults) let alone teach young children, but is essential to the creative process and to achieving mastery. By regularly including the reflective step in any creative work, it can become ingrained in one’s mindset. While “learning by doing” and “project-based learning” are terms nearly as over-used as “21st century skills”, their potential is limited if reflection isn’t integrated into the methodology.

Perhaps most importantly, awareness of and consistent use of this mindset can help children think about learning itself. Developing skills of planning, executing, and critical thinking /reflection will serve them well regardless of the type of work they choose. In other words, learning “how to learn” or “a way to work” will have far greater value in the long term than any content our children memorize, and this is the greatest possible advantage of using a design-thinking like approach from a young age.

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” — Margaret Mead

Are schools using Design Thinking?

It’s clear that this way of working can only become second nature by repeatedly putting it into practice, and schools seem like the ideal place for that. Schools all over the world are integrating design thinking into the curriculum, not to mention those that were founded on this core principle (Nueva school by IDEO, Innova School in Peru, DesignTech, a public high school in the Bay Area). But so far, this has reached only a minority of children. By bringing some of these practices into the home, parents can support the development of this thinking process in their kids and conduct their own experiments to assess effectiveness (if it doesn’t work, iterate, generate new ideas and test them out!).

Aren’t there other effective approaches already being used for children?

Similar practices are a part of several early childhood curricula, including the Reggio Emilia approach, High/Scope and Tools of the Mind, but these are mostly limited to the pre-school setting.

The Reggio Emilia approach, which has increased in popularity in the U.S. in recent years (despite starting 60 years ago in post-war Italy), incorporates hands-on learning through long-term projects, and includes a reflective practice which relies on extensive documentation and reflection (primarily by teachers, only occasionally the child). It is based on following the interests of children using different forms of representation (drawing, sculpture, story-telling, dramatic play, music, dance, among the 100 ‘languages’ its founder Loris Malaguzzi wrote about) and encourages an experimental approach.

High/Scope is a newer approach based on the Perry Pre-school Study conducted in the U.S. in the 1960s. It explicitly includes a methodology of work (the “Plan → Do → Review” sequence) as a driver of pre-schoolers’ daily routine to develop Executive Function skills. As described on their website, “Executive functions include being able to break down a task into its components, organize a plan of work, follow through on it, and reflect on the success of one’s efforts.” By using the Plan → Do → Review sequence as a tool for developing these skills, High/Scope programs aim to make this process second nature.

Tools of the Mind is another early childhood curriculum developed in the 1990s based on the work of Lev Vygotsky (and covered by Po Bronson in Nurture Shock). The Tools curriculum is focused on developing self-regulation and executive function skills by developing children’s mental tools, so they are in charge of their own learning by working in an intentional and purposeful way. Children form detailed play plans and scenarios before engaging in make-believe play with others for extended periods. While engaging in play, they follow the rules which they’ve developed for each role, and finally assess whether they acted as planned. Learning plans are used for specific learning goals and reflection is incorporated into the routine.

Do any of these make an impact?

Whether there are meaningful, long-term benefits of using any of these methodologies in terms of outcomes is a fair question and I’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic. Both High/Scope and Tools of the Mind cite several studies which have shown positive impact on students, but it’s a complex issue. The Reggio Emilia approach doesn’t follow a strict curriculum and is intended to be modified to suit individual communities’ needs, making it challenging to make conclusions regarding impact. But I think most parents would agree that focusing on methods of ‘learning about learning’ and emphasizing skills such as planning, executing and reflecting would serve us all well, and certainly be better preparation for real world success than pure content based learning.

Ideas to try at home

So much to do, so little time! Same here! But as engaged parents, it’s worth at least being aware of and reinforcing processes that help children learn how to think and work. The key is making this mindset integral to how we approach any new challenge. By changing our work habits and process, we could all arguably innovate more regularly and rapidly. Instilling a similar process in our children’s work could transform the way they create.

For an example of how parents bring this approach into the home, the book and blog by Lori Pickert are a great resource. The former Director of a Reggio-inspired school, she currently homeschools her two sons (and I highly recommend the book for all parents). While not specifically about design thinking, it illustrates some of the same principles such as the feedback loop of ideating, making drafts and representations, reflecting and iterating. The book also has great suggestions about how to speak to children about their work and how to mentor them. Most of us aren’t going to home-school our kids, but being aware of these approaches can help us guide their school work and encourage their interests in a more productive way.

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Some Great Reads if you’re interested in exploring further:

These sources are a great introduction to issues covered in this edition:

https://hbr.org/2015/08/when-everyone-is-doing-design-thinking-is-it-still-a-competitive-advantage

http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663416/teaching-kids-design-thinking-so-they-can-solve-the-worlds-biggest-problems

http://dschool.stanford.edu/recommended-reading/

This edition’s Book Pick (for all ages)

Atlas of Adventures

A beautifully illustrated journey through different cultures which includes celebrations (India’s spring festival of Holi has a gorgeous two-page spread), natural wonders like the Northern Lights and adventures such as a canoe safari down the Zambezi.

Not related to Design thinking, but a wonderful addition to your home library.