Paint boxes and used cars: tactile and tacit

In the Learning Creative Learning online course, one suggested activity this week was to read Gears of My Childhood, Seymour Papert’s essay on how playing with gears as a very young child has influenced his life, and to share with others in the course a similar reflection based on your own experience.

I’ve enjoyed reading many of these. People talk about skateboards, about a box of dress-up clothes, about a “typewriter” with 12 keys (constructed from an egg carton, a paper-towel tube, and similar highly engineered materials).

One woman wrote about a box of watercolor paints her mother got for her:

…which she said were the best watercolors on the market at that time. I felt so professional! I made many paintings with them, including huge ones… The little watercolor pans are incredibly visually appealing to me and have a particular paint smell that I still find irresistible. I love the case, the way it snaps, the way the brushes fit elegantly in the isle between the rows of pans, and the way the palette comes out and attaches to the box to create huge mixing space.

She captured me with that snap. To me the word, the sound perfectly captures a way in which childhood memories are stored so deeply. We’re attending (without necessarily focusing deliberately) on so many parts of the experience and interpreting them in ways that make sense to us.

So the snap of the box is a central part of how she remembers and relives her paintbox experience. She is now a teacher of visual and media arts. In her comments, she says:

I recommend that my students go touch all the sketchbooks in the art store and buy the one that feels the best to hold. For many it helps establish a different relationship with the work and be a lot more productive. I think this concept also applies to the physical spaces in which we live and work.

Immediately I thought of an artifact from long ago — a repair manual I bought in college to help maintain my 1963 VW Beetle. I’ve written before about How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive as an outstanding job aid.

The words about touch, though, reminded me of chapter 3, “How to Buy a Volkswagen.” The chapter is 10 pages long, including an 18-step “pre-purchase procedure” that starts by telling you what tools to bring along.

It’s crammed with practical information intended to help the novice make a better decision about a used car:

[Start the car, and with the engine idling]…put your hands over the tail pipes, quickly because they’ll soon be hot, and feel the pressure. Feel the pulses; they should be even…

Then hold your hands about four to five inches away, letting the exhaust pass over them. The pulses should be even and about the same temperature   If they are not, the engine needs or will soon need a valve job.

 Prior to that pre-purchase procedure, Muir has advice on things to do before you even put the key in the ignition. These are paraphrases:

  • Walk around and look at the car. Does it sag and look beat? Do the doors open and close well?
  • Put your foot on the brake; it should stop three inches or more from the floor.
  • Push the clutch pedal with your hand till it’s hard to push. Let it up and see how much free play there is. More than two inches: the clutch is suspect.

He goes on with a short paragraph about the upholstery (as an indicator of overall treatment), the engine (it’s air cooled – dirt is a bad sign), play in the front wheel.

And then:

Now sit back and look at it again. Does it stand up with pride? Does it feel good to you? Would you like to be its friend? Use your other senses. Sit in the driver’s seat and scrunch your butt around. Hold the wheel and close your eyes and FEEL!

…Get away from the car and the owner or salesman to let your mind and feelings go over the car and the idea of the car. What has its karma been? can you live with the car? Walk around or find a quiet place, assume the good old lotus and let the car be the thing. At this point some revelation will come to you and you will either be gently guided away from that scene…

It is important that you neither run the motor or ride in the car until this preliminary scene has run its course. It also puts the owner-salesman up the wall because he has no idea of what you are doing and will be more pliable when the hard dealing time comes.

I was never quite that touchy-feely, not even when I bought my original copy of this guide from the Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968 or so. But I think Muir did a great job of situating the pragmatic, procedural parts of VW ownership and maintenance within the context of the reader situating the car into his life.

Mitchel Resnick’s “Kindergarten Thinking”

I’ve been reading All I Really Need to Know (about Creative Thinking) I Learned (by Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten, by Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media lab. This was the suggested reading for the first session of the Learning Creative Learning online course.

This paper argues that the “kindergarten approach to learning” – characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine – is ideally suited to the needs of the 21st century, helping learners develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success and satisfaction in today’s society. The paper discusses strategies for designing new technologies that encourage and support kindergarten-style learning, building on the success of traditional kindergarten materials and activities, but extending to learners of all ages, helping them continue to develop as creative thinkers.

Resnick's image of kindergarten learning
Resnick’s image of kindergarten learning

Resnick is referring to the kind of kindergarten where kids are not “filling out phonics worksheets and memorizing flash cards” — more like the one I remember, with huge wooden blocks, a full-size rolltop desk, and nothing that I can recall as an effort to get me ready for the LSAT.

His diagram’s a spiral because the steps in this process aren’t as distinct or sequential as describing or depicting them might imply.

It’s through this process that kindergarteners “develop and refine their abilities as creating thinkers.” And, as they grow, they need resources beyond wooden blocks and finger paint.

I like his stress on little-c creativity (“creativity within one’s personal life”). Not everyone’s going to be the next Freeman Dyson or Linus Torvalds, but everyone can “become more creative in the ways they deal with everyday problems.”

In the Imagine section, he points out that many kindergarten materials encourage the imagination–they don’t over-structure. By contrast, a lot of “education technologies are overly constrained” — you can only do what they’re set up to do.

It’s like all that fun drill and practice.

He offers the example of Crickets, which I hadn’t heard of: small programmable devices, suited to children, that they can interconnect, modify, and program. Don’t take my word for it, though:

In the article, he says:

The design challenge is to develop features specific enough so that children can quickly learn how to use them, but general enough so that children can contine to imagine new ways to use them.

For some reason, this reminded me of explanations of “simple machines” in long-ago science classes–things like inclined planes, wedges, screws, and pulleys. I’d been told that a screw was a kind of inclined plane, but when it came to pulleys, I don’t think we ever actually rigged up a bunch of pulleys to experience how the right combination would let us lift a load we otherwise could not.

While reading the Create section, I read this line three times:

With Mindstorms and Crickets, for example, children can create dynamic, interactive constructions — and, in the process, learn concepts related to sensing, feedback, and control.

It’s the last part that got me. What it brought to mind was the first course I wrote in the computer-based training system we used for reservations training at Amtrak. Things I had learned about learning (like using a minimalist approach, or providing feedback without giving away the answer) clicked. I could create a course that would help someone learn how to request and interpret train schedules–and I wouldn’t have to be there when that happened.

Resnick says (sensibly) that playing and learning ought to be linked. “Each at its best involves…experimentation, exploration, and testing.” This is part of why he disliked “edutainment” (and not just for its overripe, marketeerish name).

Studios, directors, and actors provide you with entertainment; schools and teachers provide you with education… In all of these cases, you are viewed as a passive recipient. If we are trying to help children develop as creative thinkers, it is more productive to focus on “play” and “learning” (things you do) rather than “entertainment” and “education” (things that others provide for you).

Also in this section, he mentions Scratch, a programmable language that kids can use to create interactive stories. I haven’t gone into this, but just the illustrations of the code remind me of the MIT App Inventor that I used to build a smartphone app (touch a picture of a cat, hear a purring sound, after which the image changes to a cow).

A scrap of Scratch


Say meow, then switch to the cow.

Scratch is one way that Resnick’s article moves into the Share section. He quotes Marvin Minsky as saying that the Logo programming language has great grammar but not much literature.

So the Scratch website is an example of “both inspiration and audience.” And, in my way of thinking, if that’s not what you want to share, you at least see how sharing can happen.

Resnick is talking about children, but I come to this from a career mostly involving helping adults to learn. And perhaps the single biggest drawback to learning in the workplace (well, after you get past icebreakers and listening-as-learning and endless recordkeeping) is the dearth of support for reflection.

What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How’s it going? What do you think made that happen (for all kinds of outcomes)?

A colleague I respect recently said he’s decided to propose his first professional-conference presentation. I was surprised that he hadn’t presented already, but no matter. I can recall the first one I did. I wanted to share with people, but I was nearly paralyzed by the idea that I didn’t have all that much to say.

And you know, maybe I didn’t, depending on what measurements you choose.

What I did have was my particular experience (using a complex computer-based training system) combined with the data-based, lean approach to helping people improve, which I’d learned from folks like Geary Rummler and Dale Brethower.

My point is that thinking about what I’d been doing, and trying to uncover value it might have for other people, helped me see the everyday in a new light. That’s the goal of useful reflection.

* * *

I’ve written this post both to help me process the ideas in Resnick’s articles and to set down thoughts of my own. In addition, I found myself noting in a separate document things I wanted to know more about (like Crickets, epistemic games, and Lev Vygotsky). To me those were sidelights; I might discuss them one on one, but this post is plenty long as is.


Creative learning on mass, or the MIT MOOC

Just this morning, I came across MIT Media Lab’s announcement for its Learning Creative Learning online course. You can read about it or skim the outline to make your own judgment; I’m enjoying the laid-back description, which tracks with my previous massive open online course experience:

  • “This is a big experiment. Things will break. We don’t have all the answer.”
  • “We hope that participants will jump in as collaborators rather than passive recipients.”
  • “Check out our shiny new platform. Actually, don’t, because we didn’t build a shiny new platform.”

I’ve registered, I’ve joined the LCL community on Google+, and I’ve set up a place in Evernote to help me organize what I do in LCL. This (I think) is a sign I’ve learned from past experience. A while back, I joined PLENK, a MOOC on public learning environments, networks, and knowledge. I stayed with it for a while, but eventually stopped participating. There were things about the MOOC format that annoyed me, but the biggest factor in my leaving was that I hadn’t made enough connections with people whose interests overlapped sufficiently with mine.

Many of the participants were students, academics, or people closely tied to formal education (schools or colleges). That’s not the world I work in, or one I often turn to. I don’t blame the MOOC for that, any more than I blame sports bars for always having athletic events on TV.

PLENK is an example of a connectivist MOOC. George Siemens seemed to use cMOOC and xMOOC as informal and possibly tongue-in-cheek shorthand for the difference between an experience like PLENK and the more, shall we say, institutional MOOC like those from edX or Coursera. More relevant to learning is this comment he makes:

Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way,cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

As a veteran of many, many corporate training and learning efforts, I’m trying not to see the rise of the University MOOC, and especially the for-profit-corporate MOOC, as “Lecture Hall Meets Facebook.”

As a refresher for myself, and a first action for LCL, I posted in Google+ a link to this video by Dave Cormier, who’s partnered with Siemens and others, with advice on how to succeed in a MOOC.

  1. ORIENT: Find out where stuff is. Then remember where it is.
  2. DECLARE: Set up a place to record and share your thoughts.
  3. NETWORK: Follow others;  interact with them.
  4. CLUSTER: Once you’ve gotten your feet wet, get together with people who share your interests.
  5. FOCUS: “Halfway through,” Cormier says, “your mind starts to wander.” So have a way to apply what you’ve been learning.

We’ll see how well I apply myself.