To us, play is …

To us, play is a style of engaging with the world, a process of testing the
boundaries and experimenting with new possibilities. We see tinkering as
a playful style of designing and making, where you constantly experiment,
explore, and try out new ideas in the process of creating something.
Tinkering can be hard work, and sometimes it might not seem like play.
But there is always a playful spirit underlying the tinkering process.

-Mitch Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum “Designing for Tinkerability”

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Mentor Relationships and Harper High

After recently listening to the This American Life episode “Harper High School”, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of mentor relationships in learning. Part two of the TAL episode (which I highly recommend listening to if you want to get an idea of what growing up amidst gang violence in the south side of Chicago is like) portrays the relationship between Devonte and Crystal. Devonte is a Harper High student who is trying to deal with enormous guilt and trauma after years of witnessing violence and after having accidentally shot his brother. Crystal is a social worker who is trying to offer Devonte love and guidance. In the TAL episode, it quickly becomes clear that their relationship is the one thing that lets Devonte come out of his shell. 

Most often, we, as technologists/educators/designers are powerless to surmount the social and economic problems that force kids to live in such damaging environments. But I think that we can still create meaningful learning spaces. And here, our focus matters. A lot. The TAL story is a reminder that as designers of educational experiences, before considering technology, we first have to design environments that fosters trust, care, relationships and guidance. This week’s readings also pointed to this. 

The Computer Clubhouses seek to create environments that foster respect, trust, and “emerging communities”. The model envisions adults working side by side with kids, offering them support, inspiration and guidance. And Geetha  Narayanan points out that in education, the same design principles that guide good product design- efficiency, effectiveness, are exactly wrong. Instead, designers of educational experiences should focus on slowness. Slowness is crucial to building trusting relationships. And I think that those relationships are at the core of what allows a learner to open up, to tinker and explore fearlessly. 

I really recommend listening to the TAL episode. You can find both parts here:

Part 1: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/487/harper-high-school-part-one
Part 2: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/harper-high-school-part-two

Designing for a learning-driven (and NOT performance-driven) classroom culture

When I was 17, I was so fed up with school that I tried to convince my parents to let me do homeschooling. Or, at the very least, to switch schools. But the logistic complications involved with both options led them to dismiss them. And I started ditching classes.

At the time, most of my classes (especially math and science) were performance-driven. We were drilled with weekly AP practice tests. Once, when I asked my math teacher about a problem I was interested in, he told me that I shouldn’t “worry about it”. It wouldn’t be on the test. So I began to see math as a pointless numbers game. I just wanted to get math “over with” so that I could spend all remaining time with books that engaged my thoughts and frustrations. Meaningless tests stood in stark contrast to stories that grappled with complexity, raising questions that made the world come alive.

Carol Dweck (especially her book on developmental psychology: “Self-Theories”) helped me better understand the frustrations of my 17-year old self. After reading, I began to think about ways to redesign classes to make them entirely learning-driven. What if a grade was given not for how much you succeed in things you’re good at, but for how deeply you engaged with things you struggle with? I imagine this:

1. On the first day of class, students fill out a survey about their strengths and weaknesses, about the skills they feel most confident about and those they struggle with.

2. The teacher then assigns projects and pairs students with two very different strengths.

3. But instead of rewarding students for how well they use their strengths in collaboration, they’re graded entirely for how much they use the skill they struggle with (i.e their project partner’s strength).

For example, I imagine two students: one with a talent for design and another who’s a good programmer. Their task is to come up with an elegant, working prototype. What if each is graded on how much they succeeded in learning and using their peer’s strong suit? Not only would this encourage peer-learning but it would change a performance-driven classroom culture. Could this be a way of rewarding a student’s willingness to take on unfamiliar ground? To really stretch themselves and see risk-taking as a positive thing?