What future will you construct?
My daughter is starting school soon and I have been thinking a lot about teaching methodologies — and the future of education in general.
I began visiting schools and I kept coming back to the question: what kind of education do I want for her? What skills will she need for the rapidly changing and uncertain future. I learned the ins and outs of different pedagogies. And then at one of the school visits I heard about Constructionism as an approach to learning. Having no clue, I decided to do a little research and learned that Constructionism “articulates a theoretical foundation for learning based on creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation.” (1) I thought to myself: this whole creating, tinkering, testing sounds a lot like my physics laboratory in college where we learned through experimentation and making mistakes. (2)
What I learned was that tinkering, science, and the makers movement all had one thing in common: constructionism.
A Little History
Seymour Papert, an MIT professor, was a big proponent of learning by experimentation and having been influenced by Piaget (father of constructivist philosophy) he decided to pioneer the constructionist pedagogy. Papert’s constructionist pedagogy would allow young learners to construct their knowledge through inquire, testing and creating. So as it turns out Papert really liked getting students to work with their hands, much like science labs, only it was true for any subject.
In his words, students learn best when “supported by construction of a more public sort ‘in the world’ — a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what I mean by ‘in the world’ is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired.” (3) He created a number of educational tools to aid learning, including a programming language for children to easily program robots… 51 years ago!
He is also one of the founders of the MIT Media Lab which continues “to invent — and reinvent — how humans experience, and can be aided by, technology.”
In fact, it was at MIT Media Lab that Papert began to reimagine how learning should happen in schools. Creativity that comes from working with your hands is something we learn in kindergarten, but what if playfulness and inventing never left our classrooms. What kind of lifelong students would we have?
Well, as it turns out, we all know of a place where hands on learning for young and old alike has taken place for decades. It was so common to find people’s garages turned into top shops for building stuff that it became a synonym for innovation labs. You may have heard of this place: Silicon Valley.
Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were tinkerers. They were intimately familiar with “Kit computers” better known as do-it-yourself (DIY) micro-computers before they became the personal computer we buy today from factory manufactured brands like HP, Apple, IBM. Hence, many of the inventions we love and cherish today were born from lifelong creatives that never stopped tinkering and constructing.
Here are other DIY projects that have become mainstream in our vocabulary: 3D printer, drones, gene editing kits, and robots to name a few.
Many of these are today associated with the Makers movement. Here is how MAKERS are described: “The ‘maker movement’ is heralded as a new industrial revolution — combining the spirit of the old shop class with modern tech in community ‘Do It Yourself’ spaces.” (4)
So after doing a little more research, I learned that the makers movement has a strong foundation in constructionism: building a prototype, testing it, putting it out in the world. The whole “having your ideas come to life.” Some have identified the constructionist pedagogy as the model for the Makers education and a source of disruption to the status quo (5).
The Makers movement sees the new industrial revolution as the revival of working with your hands, reconnecting with the physical world and like-minded people in order to build customized items. In doing so, makers take power back to build things that make sense for themselves or their users.
Fab Labs (short for fabrication laboratories) are also a product of MIT Media Lab. Fab Labs have emerged in some 200 cities around the globe.
Construct the future
Now that’s a future of education I can get behind. As I introduce my child to the world, I want her to know that by exploring she can construct new tools and knowledge. But the same message remains true for my own students and mentees as they learn what it means to build their ideas, technologies, and startups.
So I leave you with the same sentiment: go out there — not just to explore the world — but to construct the future.
References and author's notes:
(2) My Biology and Chemistry labs also used experimentation as the cornerstone of learning, but mistakes in these labs had a hire cost, like the time I set the my chemistry experiment on fire.
(3) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer (1994)
(5) Christa Flores, a past Stanford FabLearn Fellow, wrote eloquently about this in “Constructionism, a Learning Theory and a Model for Maker Education”