Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fostering the Spirit of Innovation

I’ve been “green” with envy as some of my colleagues who ordered an XO laptop unpack their little GREEN machines. Mine has not arrived yet. But as I listen to their first impression comments , I’m reminded of the VISION of the OLPC (one laptop per child) project and that the nature of children to explore, express, and learn were key in the design of this tool that would find itself in the hands of children all over the world. I hear questions like:

"Why doesn’t it come with a spreadsheet?”
“Where’s the productivity suite?”
“Would this be a tool I could use in my classroom with my students?”

Suddenly I realize that we are thinking like teachers. This tool was not designed for us. According to the OLPC website, the XO laptop was intended to give children

“…tools for writing, composing, simulating, expressing, constructing, designing, modeling, imagining, creating, critiquing, debugging, and collaborating."

“The laptop takes learners beyond instruction. They are actively engaged in a process of learning through doing. …. “

“The laptop helps children build upon their active interest in the world around them to engage with powerful ideas”

The XO laptop was even designed to be taken apart and repaired by kids. No, This Does No Void the Warranty! ;-)

I’m not going to predict the impact of the OLPC, nor argue its merit. But this event certainly has me revisiting thoughts about the impact on society of not providing children with enough opportunity to “explore, express, and learn” . A re we continuing towards the “perfect storm” that Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson warns of if we ignore the “quiet crisis” of not growing the next generation of scientist and engineers?

While educators have become tuned into the fact that more and more kids are coming to school without book sense and are developing researched based programs to address this, a kindergarten teacher in Tennessee worries “about the number of kids coming into my classroom who don’t know how scissors work.” Educational consultant, Jim Moulton, ponders the impact of this and asserts that

the mastery of scissors is even one of the early steps on the road to Advanced Placement physics or chemistry. I believe that the kinesthetic experience they provide around equilibrium, experience gained in struggling to master this simple tool so as to be able to cut construction paper smoothly, lays a foundation for future complex conceptual understandings.”

It was exactly this type of need that lead Gever Tuller to create the Tinkering School. Despite the provocative title of his Ted Talk “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do”, the message is really about allowing kids the freedom to explore to make them stronger, smarter, and safer.

Children receiving the XO laptops have not lacked the opportunity to explore the principles of physics in their natural environments, but now have access to a new tool equipped to support their desire to learn, express, and explore. But what about places, where children currently have access to such tools? Do they have access to the opportunity to use these tools the way the XO laptops will be able to be used? Or will the access to these tools continue to be stifled by “teacher think” and “school restrictions” or “lawsuit fears” ?

Having spent many of my teaching years reconciling the need to report on a ‘checklist’ of foundational skills that every student must know about a subject area with my project based learning approach, I understand the struggle. Accountability that is based on reporting what we can measure, doesn’t leave much time for the type exploring, expressing and learning that grows innovators and scientists.

But as I watch the excitement in my “grown up” friends as they explore their little green machines, I have a renewed interest in finding ways to bring back learning by exploration to today’s students. And I’m not talking about waiting for the availability of the XO laptops in your country; I’m talking about reaching for tools that are currently available that will promote this type of learning.

  • Let’s dig out our old version of Incredible Machine or look for new games like Crayon Physics that stimulate innovative thinking in our students.

  • Let’s get rid of the obstacles that prevent tools like the many WEB 2.0 applications from being fully deployed in schools. Ning, Wikispaces, and Voice Threads are leading the way by adding features that make it possible to safely deploy these excting tools thus supporting this type of learning in schools.

  • Let’s share the resouces we find with our fellow educators and support a network of educators who are committed to give this generation of “incredible thinking machines” -- our students—the resources, the permission, the encouragement, the guidance they need to use technology in the spirit of innovation.

I invite readers to share some of the games, tools, web 2.0 apps, etc. that they feel have this type of potential. I’d love to do a followup post filled with these resources.