When Mitch Resnick was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, he and his little brother were always making up new games. For example, he says, “In the basement, throw a tennis ball so it goes between the pipes in the ceiling for two points, and bounces off the pipe for one point.”
His parents were tolerant of their making noise and rearranging the furniture. One summer he even dug up the backyard for a minigolf course. The design process was a matter of trial and error: Could he use soda cans to make the holes? What path would the ball take as it hit various obstacles?
Behind these games, he says, was a positive spiral of imagining, making, playing, sharing with others, reflecting and imagining again.
Today Resnick leads a research group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab with the delightful name of Lifelong Kindergarten. It’s dedicated to drawing people into that same spiral.
Their initiatives include Scratch, a simplified programming language and a social platform. It’s used by millions of children and adults worldwide to make and share animations, stories, games and interactive art.
Resnick has just come out with a book, also titled Lifelong Kindergarten. It’s his attempt to distill what he’s learned over the last few decades. It also includes the voices of children and teenagers who have participated in Lifelong Kindergarten projects.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Why publish this book now?
It felt important to get those ideas out. Scratch is reaching millions, but I want to make sure people have a sense of the philosophies underlying the technologies, so they can put those into practice in ways that align with our learning ideas.
Also, I think it comes at a critical time. Increasingly people are coming to recognize that there are real challenges in our current educational system.
It’s pretty well understood that society is changing in fundamental ways and education isn’t well aligned with the needs of a fast-changing society. But people aren’t really sure what to do about it.
The answers you lay out in this book seem to represent a middle way both on the use of technology, and on approaches to education. Can you talk about that?
On technology in particular, I talk about techno-enthusiasts and techno-skeptics, and I am taking a place in between those.
And with educational approaches, sometimes people go to extremes of needing to carefully script instruction and information flow, or the other extreme of, “Let kids explore, they are naturally creative.”
I do think the approaches we take to how to organize space and technologies and how to support learners as they engage with those spaces and technologies is really important.
So, rather than just putting kids in front of some craft supplies and a laser cutter in a “maker space,” and telling them to go at it, you’re advocating a much more specific approach of what you call the four P’s: Students making projects, around their passions, collaborating with peers, and maintaining a playful attitude. Take me through those.
In some ways I think peers is a place where I’ve learned more in the last decade than ever before. New technologies have made a big difference there. We had a sense of that when we launched Scratch’s online community. I’ve continued to be amazed at all the ways people make use of the online community to share and support one another. It’s opened up different possibilities and forms of collaboration, new strategies and mindsets for people building on one another’s work. Schools see it as cheating and we see it as learning.
And what about play? What does that really mean? How is it different from passion, or interest-driven learning?
I use the word play differently from some people. People think of fun and games — I don’t have anything against fun and games. I prefer the word playful or playfulness. I’m really trying to get at a type of approach or way of engaging that involves taking risk, experimenting, trying new things. And the environment needs to be supportive enough that it’s OK to mess up.
I think the minigolf story is a good example — I was provided the opportunity to try out new things in our house, and it was seen in a positive light.
What is the role of teachers in these settings?
Not dispensers of information.
They play a role as catalysts, sparking ideas, as consultants, helping people navigate the learning process and providing new strategies to avoid frustration, as connectors to bring people together — peers who can be helpful to each other — and also as collaborators themselves. We want to blur the boundaries so teachers become learners and learners become teachers.
Your great mentor and collaborator at MIT was Seymour Papert, who passed away last year. He was a pioneer of educational technology and among the first to advocate universal laptop programs in schools, which are now commonplace. What would he think of the way tech is being used in schools today?
He’d be very frustrated. He was frustrated while he was alive. Most computers are not used in schools to empower kids.
Seymour wanted kids to explore, experiment, express themselves, and I don’t think that’s the dominant way that computers are used in schools today. A lot of technology continues to be used to deliver instruction. In some cases, kids have some more control than in the past: They might get to choose which video instruction they want to use in which order. We see glimmers of change, but it’s at the fringes. Even schools that start to embrace kids as makers will do something like, have them follow instructions for making things and then give them a quiz about key words in the instructions.
There’s a real tension there, right? I feel it as a parent, that I want some evidence that my daughter is really learning something, and a quiz may be a way of trying to get at that.
It’s fair for people to want some accountability, to make sure kids are developing and taking advantage of all the opportunities, but trying to feel out the right way of doing that is not easy.
Also, though I really don’t want kids to only be following the instructions, there’s nothing wrong with spending some time following the instructions. I want them to see it as a stepping stone, gaining some expertise and fluency that enables them to feel comfortable expressing themselves.
For some kids, starting to learn in traditional ways will work. For others, it’s a terrible failure. They’re only going to start to learn the basics when they can experiment. No one path is right for everybody.
So are you optimistic that schools will ever evolve along the lines you describe?
I sometimes describe myself as a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.
I know how difficult it is to shift systems and mindsets. But I see the needs of societies changing so much, that the kinds of approaches in the book make so much sense, that ultimately we’ll win out. It’s what keeps me going. I’ve dedicated my life to this.