All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.
In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.
Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.
One quote that really caught my eye in the article:
In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.
What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.
Learning By Doing
Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.
For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.
However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.
The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.
First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.
Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.
By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.
For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:
- 1984 TED talk
- A recent talk at the World Government Summit in Dubai
- MIT Media Lab archive of writings and projects