Creativity and Learning in the Era of AI

[Written as the preface for the Korean edition of my book Lifelong Kindergarten]

Around the world, governments and companies are proclaiming that we are entering the “era of AI”. Using advances in artificial intelligence, companies are now producing devices that understand speech, cameras that recognize faces, cars that drive by themselves, and computers that identify patterns in huge databases of information.

What does this mean for today’s children? How can they prepare for success and happiness in the era of AI?

There is little doubt that computers and robots will take over many tasks that were previously performed by people. That presents some challenges — but also some great opportunities. In the past, people spent a lot of time doing “machine-like” tasks: following rules and routines, step-by-step, over-and-over, to get a job done. As computers and robots take over these types of tasks, it frees up people to focus on tasks that require more imagination and creativity. People will always have an advantage over machines when it comes to imagination and creativity.

In the era of AI, the pace of change will continue to accelerate. Today’s children will face a never-ending stream of unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable situations. The key to success and happiness will be the ability to think and act creatively.

You could say that the era of AI will “force” people to focus more on creativity. But I see this as an opportunity, not a problem. Creative activities bring joy, meaning, and purpose to people’s lives. Focusing on creativity is not just an economic imperative, it is also a path towards human fulfillment, an opportunity for humans to be more human.

So how can we help today’s children prepare for this new era, where creativity will be more important than ever before? That’s what this book is all about. In the book, I discuss technologies, activities, and strategies for helping children develop as creative thinkers, drawing on my experiences at the MIT Media Lab for the past 30 years.

Change is urgently needed. Today, most activities in children’s lives — from lessons in the classroom to games in the living room — are not designed to help children develop their creative capacities. Most technologies in children’s lives are designed to deliver instruction or entertainment, not to engage children in creative thinking and creative expression.

This book suggests an alternative path. The book is organized around a framework that I call the “Four P’s of Creative Learning”: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. It describes why and how parents and educators should provide children with opportunities to work on projects, based on their passions, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. The ultimate goal: To help children develop as creative thinkers, so that they can create new opportunities for themselves and shape the world of tomorrow.

The book discusses how new technologies, such as the Scratch programming language and online community, can help children learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for everyone in today’s society. If you look at the Scratch website (scratch.mit.edu), you’ll see an explosion of children’s creativity. Every day, children around the world create and share more than 30,000 projects on the site. What’s most exciting to me is not the number of projects, but the diversity and creativity of the projects: animated stories, video games, virtual tours, guided tutorials, science simulations, comic strips, interactive birthday cards, and many, many more.

But technology alone is not enough. To achieve the full benefit of Scratch and other new technologies, parents and educators need to think about education and learning in new ways, focusing less on delivering instruction and more on providing children with opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves.

Let me share an example. One morning, a few years ago, I woke up and looked at the Scratch website, and I saw 30 identical projects, all shared around the same time. At first, I thought there was a “bug” in our website software, generating multiple copies of the same project. But I looked more closely and saw that the projects were created by 30 different children, all from the same location in Korea.

I realized what must have happened. The projects were all from a single Korean classroom, where the teacher gave the students step-by-step instructions on how to create a particular Scratch project. The students all followed the instructions carefully, then all shared their finished projects to the Scratch website. So 30 identical projects appeared on the website, one after the other.

The students in the class might have learned some basic coding techniques. But they weren’t developing as creative thinkers. I’m hoping that this book will not only introduce people to innovative technologies like Scratch, but also to innovative approaches for using those technologies, to help children develop as creative thinkers.

In Korea, I’ve been fortunate to work on education initiatives in collaboration with the Smilegate Foundation. When I first met people at the Smilegate Foundation, I told them the story about the Korean classroom where all of the students followed the same step-by-step instructions. Initially, I was hesitant to tell them the story, since I worried that they might not want to hear negative stories about Korean education. But the response from my Smilegate hosts was the opposite. They encouraged me to tell the story in my presentations in Korea — and also to share the story in this preface for the Korean edition of my book! To promote change, they explained, it is important to help people to understand current problems and challenges, and then they will be ready and motivated to work on improvements and solutions.

I hope that this book can help plant some seeds of change. It isn’t easy to change the ways that people and organizations think about education and learning. We’ll need many people, from all parts of society, to work together to bring about change. It’s a big challenge, but it’s worth the effort. As you read this book, think about how you can contribute to this effort. I hope we can all work together to make sure that all children, from all backgrounds, have opportunities to develop as creative thinkers — so that they can thrive in the era of AI.