From Legos to littleBits

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.

Dave Eggers TED Wish

photo from
Dave Eggers makes a wish

Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and named Best Book of the Year by Time magazine that same year.  This might be enough of an achievement for any writer But Eggers is a writer on a mission.  His books include the 2005 Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (co-authored with Daniel Moulthrop and Nínive Clements Calegari).

In 2008 Eggers won a TED prize giving him the opportunity to make any wish with the TED community and $100,000 to back it up.  He based his wishon the experience of creating a neighborhood tutoring program in San Francisco, the city he now calls home. His TED prize wish is for more people to follow him into getting involved in local schools.  Utne Reader named him one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World” and his interest in education has led him to become one of the most well-regarded voices in education volunteerism.

One of the many reasons he is able to make a difference with students is his respect for educators.  Of inviting volunteers to work in the public schools, he says, “Always let the teachers lead the way.  They will tell you how to be useful.”   His commitment to learning has not been overshadowed by an arrogant disregard for the work teachers currently do.  On the contrary, he recognizes the challenge teachers face in teaching with greater distractions, more demands, and in many cases, an obligation to teach more than their subject material.  Many teachers are in the position of being educator and parent to kids whose families must work long hours or for kids who must spend long hours at school.

Volunteer mentors have an opportunity to do something teachers may not have the time to do; acknowledge small steps and healthy choices which may go unnoticed in the hectic school world.  Many kids with dreams often fade into the background.  If they are neither troublemakers nor shining stars, they may not have the tools to draw the attention they need to make progress.  Of these students who may lose heart, Eggers says,  “Some of these kids just don’t plain know how good they are, how smart and how much they have to say.  You can tell them.  You can shine that light on them one human interaction at a time.”  For anyone who has ever seen a kid’s eyes light up when an adult says to them, “good job”, it is a memorable reward.  Go, find a school in your neighborhood, and make a difference for the future; volunteer.

To see Eggers’ TED-inspired website, go to:

To see his TED presentation, go to:

Hungry for Ideas

Albert Eistein was a fun guy.
Einstein in a Silly Mood.

What education in general has been saying to our students is: “You’re here to learn about your culture but not impact it.”  But the progressive educator is saying to his students, “Go out and make a statement, make a difference, interpret,  inspire and elucidate!”  The mentor is all about inspiring his students to make an impact.  Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

One of the assumptions of the past is that the more knowledge we collect, the more educated we are.  This is a form of education but, unless students draw conclusions and really think about and link these bits and bobs of information found on tests, there is no real learning.  Despite the fear mongering concerning our students’ test performance, there is, and always has been, a basic human hunger for learning.  This is most evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of TEDtalks.

If you haven’t seen a TEDtalk yet, I invite you to take a look at one of the more than 700 15-20 minute talks on every subject imaginable.  It is very likely that you will find more than one TEDtalk to feed your brain.  I treat these nuggets of delicious learning like mind candy.  You shouldn’t view too many in a row, they are so rich with information, your system might get overstimulated.  But one a day or a couple a week; this is good for your soul.  I recently viewed a TEDtalk by TED Media Director, June Cohen.  In her presentation she notes, “In the  last 4 years TED has put 700 talks online for free and these talks have been viewed 300 million times.” This really speaks to the hunger we have for good ideas.

If life was only a fact-collecting expedition we would lose interest before we hit puberty.  We are hungry, but not for facts.  We are hungry for ideas.  Because TEDtalks are a forum for the spread of ideas, in 2006 TEDtalks went online free of charge.  The single stated goal was “to spread ideas.” On the website there is a list clarifying this goal:

* An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.

* An idea weighs nothing.

* It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.

* And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.

* It can reshape that mind’s view of the world.

* It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind’s owner.

* It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others.

The goal of the foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas… Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.”

This interest in ideas gets at the core of being human, alive and on the planet.  What is the purpose of education?  Currently, it is an institution based on a cultural-economic model whose time has come and gone, yet we cling to this format as though we are waiting for Godot.   Unlike libraries, schools often point to a small collection of core knowledge and tell the student to “memorize that”.  While I believe in mentoring and providing educational focus, I also think schools are not the last word in learning.

Learning happens wherever there is an open mind.  Take, for instance, libraries, those repositories of learning where a person can choose independently what to learn.  Anyone from anywhere can walk into a public library and take a book off any shelf and read it.  Before the Internet, this was our main public access to ideas.  Providing public access to ideas sometimes creates anxiety for people in power.  Recent troubles for Google in China illustrate this still exists.  Fear of public access to ideas did not  start with Google, however.

David Greene of National Public Radio tells the story of an age before libraries were common: “There was a time in Britain, say 160 years ago, when some in Parliament didn’t believe in public libraries at all. The worry was, if the working class read books, it would get dangerous ideas and rise up against the government.” This dire prediction, of course, never came to pass.  People want access to learning for reasons that supersede politics, domestic life and work.  People want access to ideas in order to grow.

Albert Einstein had quite a lot to say about education and learning.  His opinions may be based on the fact that his grades in school were so poor that a teacher told him he would never amount to much and he dropped out of school at age 15.  He later said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”  There are so many examples of great thinkers being told by their teachers they would fail.  The very people at the heart of the education institution have misidentified some of the greatest minds in history.  Isaac Newton faired poorly in grade school and also failed at running the family farm.  Ludwig van Beethoven’s music teacher once said, “As a composer, he is hopeless.” As a child Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything.  Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade.   It seems obvious to us in hind site these teachers were mistaken.  They noticed a child thinking differently and labeled the child as “wrong thinking”.  We are so often quick to judge the flexible mind.  It is, somehow, easier to call a child ‘slow’ when they might be thinking so fast we are unable to keep up with them.  Let’s encourage these crazy ideas and look for ways to make our teaching relevant.  As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Powered by

Up ↑