Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things? Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way. I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea. This broadens the concept of art significantly. If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process. Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education. Diversity is a necessity for artists. But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness. I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook. Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development. Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level. If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more. For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar. For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.
How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth? This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy. Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment. When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests. The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve). When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.
Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking. The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions. The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom. We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged. In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits. It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation. Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.
My husband found an interesting blog post on the idea of the teacher-led school model. The idea of a greater presence in the classroom for decision-makers is one which piques my interest. I am fortunate to work in an educational community where everybody’s involved in student life. It’s a bit like living in a small town. Mrs. Crabtree tells your Sunday School teacher what she saw and the milkman noticed something too and we’re all talking to your mom. But I digress… Enjoy the post:
A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend.
Image via Wikipedia
This New York Times story of preschool madness elicits an obvious response: “Are these parents crazy?” There are more subtle forms of directed learning that may thwart rather than propel children. We all know that an over-scheduled child can become a stressed-out child. It would take a month’s worth of blogs to identify negatives associated with stress. For this post I’ll stick to the theme of directed learning. I should call it over-directed learning.
I have seen teachers and parents (including me) pulling their hair in frustration because a child won’t go along with our learning structure. I am a fan of giving a certain amount of structure to kids. This includes a few rules, a reliable schedule and logical consequences. That structure allows kids freedom to create within a psychologically safe environment. But here is where I differ from those who push their children to earn their place among the learning superstars before they enter middle school. A child who plays with Lego’s by destroying and rebuilding or spins around in the backyard until he falls down, stands up, looks around, and spins again is learning. We label this kind of learning “play” and by doing so we reduce its importance in the educational hierarchy. Learning does not only occur at a desk or in an environment where right answers rule the day.
Coercing children into directed learning environments such as the one described in the New York Times article or even placing your baby near the stereo to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has only a short-term effect on spatial-temporal reasoning and no discernible increase in intelligence. Why, then, do we continue down these competitive paths? Sometimes we favor organizational skills and following directions over experiment and exploration. Imposing adult standards on children for things like order, neatness and organization has more to do with convenience and less to do with allowing children to learn and grow. Failure Freedom is missing in these environments.
The freedom to fail boldly is what allows for quantum leaps in learning. By encouraging our children to be afraid of failure and push harder to please the adults in their lives we have siphoned the gas from our educational engine. It took me three kids and many years in the classroom to learn this lesson. But my failures (and not the copious books I have read) have been my greatest learning tool.
I just wanted to let you know I will begin posting again next week on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule now that back-to-school sales have begun. See you all in the blogosphere.
Criticism Can Be a Good Thing
My ex husband can tell you I used to be the kind of person who would self destruct over minor criticisms. This seems laughable to me now as I can see how annoying, growth-impeding and even self-destructive that behavior can be. Now that I’m older and wiser (and teaching middle school students) I have learned that criticism, whether ill-intentioned or not, is actually pretty useful. A couple of weeks ago I accused my fiance of tuning me out whenever I was ranting. He suggested it might be a good thing. If I forced him to listen to every rant, it would only annoy him. I laughed pretty hard at this comment because I realized that A) not everything I say or write is golden and B) sometimes it’s best to simply rant to yourself.
It seems that the more you are willing to hear criticism as contribution, the more you will learn and grow. It has a side benefit of giving you an enchanting personality. When I notice a student getting defensive I will often ask him what he is hearing me say. What students hear and what I say (or intend to say) can be different. I know that comes as a shock to middle school teachers and parents but kids from about age nine and up are in the process of developing self-awareness. In their younger years kids don’t think much about anybody else. It’s not a problem because it’s developmentally appropriate for them to be disinterested in the opinions of others.
Self awareness and concern about what other people think about them, especially for young teens, is a dual-edged sword. While it helps motivate kids to shower and use deodorant, it also contributes to issues such as low self-esteem and anorexia. Middle school is the time to be sensitive to an awakening self-awareness while helping your students understand the value of high expectations. Reaching for their personal best is fulfilling not because it impresses their friends, parents and teachers, but because it’s exciting, and part of the adventure of living. We can help our students see the difference between achievement for others and achievement for the joy of it. If taking criticism becomes difficult or even painful for your students, it’s a pretty good bet there is too much focus on what other people think. Help your students understand the difference and you’ll give them a gift for life.