Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Reading

I recently received the following e-mail from a former teaching colleague of mine.  “While hanging out at the pool, I have been doing my summer reading requirement and have actually been profoundly moved by the book I am reading and immediately thought of you and wondered if you have read it as well. It is A New Culture of Learning, Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It is all about the notion of play as the new way kids learn in the digital world. It is amazingly concise, organized and has tremendous clarity about the importance of play as the best way to learn and how it is happening - cannot be avoided; we will be left behind if we don't embrace it. You probably know all about it but I thought I would mention it in case you had not come across it yet. Plenty of good references within the book to other sources and writers on related topics as well.”

It so happened I’d been reading the book myself and also found it compelling. Though not, strictly speaking, a book about school reform, I think my friend is correct in assessing we will be left behind if we don’t embrace the importance of play in learning. 

I find it ironic that a book about the importance of play is required faculty reading.  To be fair, this book was an option among several titles faculty were asked to choose from. I can understand a need for some common ground for opening of school year faculty discussions.  Still, there is a sense in the assigning that things will fall off the rails, wind up going nowhere, unless someone at or near the top of a hierarchy determines what will be read, maintains some control. It is the element of control that bothers me.  It is as if whoever assigned the book never read the book, or never really quite got it. 

I’ve sat through some of those return-to school-meetings where everyone has had to read and then sits in small groups to discuss the assigned material. The grousing, lack of engagement, and resistance, are palpable.  Of course, in a few days, those same teachers will turn to assigning their students reading. And a few days after that begin to fret over students’ lack of engagement.  Does anyone make the connection?

What if the administrator who assigned the reading had instead simply posed a question or two?  Set a problem for colleagues to wrestle with. Something like, “What is the role of play in learning at our school?  What might it be?  What should it be?”  Then invited faculty to read, discuss, research, ponder, and play, with the question.  Perhaps have the school’s tech people set up an online forum where people could compare notes, mention books and articles they’ve read, YouTube videos (There are some good ones on the topic, including this one by John Seely Brown:, questions they’ve been asked at a wedding reception, play they’ve engaged in, anything. Create the possibility of a networked discussion throughout the summer (thus avoiding summer learning lag for teachers) that could continue through and beyond the opening of school.  Allow people to contribute anonymously if they so chose.  Such networked collaboration might even lead to the question, “What do we do about the role of play in our school? “  That question invites the possibility of growth and change.   Unless, of course, growth and change wasn’t part of the agenda to begin with.  Unless, no one wants to hear too much of what teachers think about how the school might operate.  Then, assigning a book makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"The child stayed with the man."

I have been reading and rereading James Gleick’s elegant book, The Information.  It is the story of the development of information technologies as they have advanced over the course of history, from early alphabets through telegraph, telephone, radio and on up to the digital Information Age we live in now.
Until reading the book I was unaware of Claude Shannon, best know as “the father of information theory.”  It takes a book the scope of Gleick’s to properly describe and credit Shannon: electrical engineer, mathematician, cryptographer, author of a master’s thesis Howard Gardener called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.”  The range and wealth of Shannon’s work is astounding. 

One thing I find especially noteworthy about this brilliant man is his sense of play.  He was a lifelong tinkerer.  His interests were as varied as juggling, chess, and unicycling.  He invented all sorts of devices for fun: a robot mouse that could learn to solve a maze, a motorized pogo stick, an early computer chess program, a device to solve Rubik’s cube. 

An interesting YouTube video on Shannon can b found here:

Gleick writes about him:  “A curious child in a country town in the 1920’s might naturally from an interest in the sending of messages along wires, as Claude Shannon did in Gaylord, Michigan.  He saw wires every day, fencing the pastures – double strands of steel, twisted and barbed, stretched from post to post.  He scrounged what parts he could and jerry-rigged his own bard-wire telegraph, tapping messages to another boy a half mile away.  He used the code devised by Samuel F. B. Morse.  That suited him. He liked the very idea of codes – not just secret codes but codes in the more general sense words or symbols standing in for other words or symbols.  He was an inventive an playful spirit.  The child stayed with the man.  All his life, he played games and invented games.  He was a gadgeteer.  The grown-up Shannon juggled and devised theories about juggling.  When researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Bell Laboratories had to leap aside to let a unicycle pass, that was Shannon.  He had more than his share of playfulness…”

“The child stayed with the man.”  My concern is that in and out of school the child and the man get separated.  We don’t give the child enough time to play, time to exercise the imagination.  Nor do we encourage the practice of play in adults.  We don’t reinforce the value of play.  As Sir Ken Robinson says, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.  We get educated out of it.”  Claude Shannon was a special intellect, to be sure.  But he grew up in conditions that fertilized that intellect with play.  My concern is that conditions of the sort that nurtured Shannon are increasingly rare for today’s children.  Where and how do our children get to exercise their imagination? Hands on experience with imagination.  We must never forget the value of play.