Message: 13
Date: 7.1.94
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Learning by Doing: Don't Dissect the Frog, Build It

I'm always amazed when I read about how badly young Americans are educated, not because such statements are necessarily untrue, but because most authors and critics go on to compare our children with those of France, Korea, or Japan, whose brains have been stuffed with thousands of facts. Most American children do not know the difference between the Baltics and the Balkans, or who the Visigoths were, or when Louis XIV lived. So what? I'll bet you don't know that Reno is west of Los Angeles.

Let me point out the heavy price paid in those countries for requiring young minds to master this apparent font of knowledge. Children in Japan are more or less dead on arrival when they enter the university system. Over the next four years they'll feel like marathon runners asked to go rock climbing at the finish line. Worse, those young people didn't learn a thing about learning and, for the most part, have had the love of it whipped out of them.

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now, with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

Don't Dissect a Frog, Build One
On April 11, 1970, Seymour Papert held a symposium at MIT called "Teaching Children Thinking" and placed a new stake in the groundwork of epistemology. His notion was based on using computers as engines which children would teach and thus learn by teaching. He moved the locus of interest from how computers can teach to how children learn. This astonishingly simple idea simmered for almost fifteen years before it came to life through PCs. Today, when almost 30 percent of all American homes contain a personal computer, the idea really has come into its time.

Certainly, some learning derives from great teaching and telling a good story. We all remember our good teachers. But a major measure of learning results from exploration, from re-inventing the wheel and finding out for yourself. Until the computer, the tools and toys for these experiences were limited, special-purpose apparatuses, frequently administered with extreme control and regimentation (my excuse for not learning chemistry).

The computer changed this radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

Street Smarts on the Superhighway
Think back to your best teachers. If you are a teacher, think of your best students. Or, consider your most admired engineer, scientist, or artist -- living or dead. What do they all have in common? Passion. Passion expresses itself in many forms of excitement and curiosity, it is frequently playful, and it is always consuming. Students from the often admired educational systems of France, Korea, and Japan are routinely dispassionate, even more so than American children, for passion is anathema to the elders of education in these countries -- something to be drilled out of all students. Passion is OK in sports, even wanton abandon. But not in intellectual activities. In some countries children are still to be seen, not heard.

On the Internet, by contrast, a child's voice knows no boundary. And nobody can surely identify children there. While we can only roughly estimate that 30 million people use the Internet's 2,217,000 host machines (as of January 1994), trying to guess their ages is even more difficult. In spite of its inception as a tool for the august and older academic community, the average age of an Internet user today is 26 (a number derived with considerable care by MIT undergraduates Jonathan Litt and Craig Wisneski). I expect that number to drop to 15 by the year 2000.

Toys to Learn With
Papert is the Lego Professor of Learning Research at MIT. People frequently smile when they hear such an odd marriage of a leading world toy manufacturer with an institution of higher learning and advanced research. This oddity, however, reflects precisely the shared agenda of Lego and the Media Lab: understanding the acquisition of knowledge at very young ages. If the roots of a small plant are damaged, fertilizer will do only so much, no matter the amount or method of application. For this reason, we see elementary school as the critical moment.

Funding of Media Lab research from Interlego A/S, the Danish company that owns Lego in the US, has resulted in an important contribution to products in Lego's Dacta division ("LEGO TC Logo" and "Control Lab"), which have been used in elementary and secondary schools by more than one million children. The computer-controllable Lego allows children to endow their physical constructs with behavior. Both anecdotal evidence and careful testing results reveal that this constructivist (as Papert calls it) approach has an extraordinary reach, across a wide range of cognitive and learning styles. In fact, many children said to be learning disabled flourish here. Perhaps we have been more "teaching disabled" than "learning disabled."

Even without a robust theory of why building things helps us learn, why designing frogs may be better than dissecting them, we can rest assured that the constructivist tools will grab an increasing piece of the market for learning technology. This is happening precisely at a time when more and more people are taking the publishing model seriously, perhaps too seriously, and expanding it to multimedia. There may be a surprising end run by more design-based software and networking technology.

Current work with Lego at the Media Lab includes a computer-in-a-brick prototype, which demonstrates a further degree of flexibility and opportunity for constructivism. It includes inter-brick communications and opportunities to explore parallel processing in ways that none of us could. Kids using this today will learn physical and logical principles you and I learned in college. Imagine a Lego set in the year 2000, where each brick says: "Intel inside."

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