Learning Creative Learning


Learning Creative Learning: An emphasis on Play (as one of the 4 P’s)


This week we were delighted to team-up with folks from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT’s Media lab for their Learning Creative Learning course. Mike and I had a conversation with Mitchel Resnick and his students about the role of play in learning and our work in the Tinkering Studio. Afterwards, we invited the class to tinker with a few different activities that centered around circuits. We wanted them to consider elements of activity design or moments that felt particularly playful to them and discuss what made that possible. After trying the activities, we had a group discussion, here's a recap:

“When I was given ample time, I knew I didn’t have to hurry and could take my time.”

Time is an ever-present pressure and important for educators to keep in mind because the impression of time (or lack of it) can have real impact on the overall ethos you’re trying to create. When we allow ample time, it frees the mind to concentrate on what’s at hand, rather than concentrate on a looming deadline or cut-off point. We like to let people know upfront how long an activity typically takes, but in the ideal situation we let them decide when they’re finished. In the class we allowed a good chunk of time for working (45min), but wanted to save time to have a final discussion. Had we been in the Tinkering Studio this would have been less of a limitation, but without the benefit of a reflective conversation to wrap up the experience.

“It was easy to imagine new possibilities with all of the materials.“

Some materials are suggestive of a particular use (like a googly eye) while others are open to interpretation. One of my favorite things about tinkering activities is how creativity emerges throughout the activity, and the variety of uses we see with every single material. In fact I keep wanting to document the many ways that a single material gets used over the course of an activity.

“When everyone around me was laughing, it made me have more fun.”

Making and tinkering aren’t meant to be silent, there are definitely times of focused attention, but conversation and laughter occur naturally as people are building and testing what they’ve made.

“From the way it was introduced…you could have called one of the activities something more serious, like a drawing machine, but instead you used the word scribbling and that set a certain tone.”

This is an interesting notion to experiment with as an education designer. The language you choose to describe something speaks volumes and sets a tone in terms of expectations and outcomes. At the Exploratorium we consider this when crafting descriptions for classes and camps (really anytime we’re giving something a label or description). The choices that you make about this may unintentionally be turning people away. So play with it – try something one way, then flip it to see if you notice an impact in terms of who shows up and what they do once they get there.

“There were ways to make things more complicated. I had some experience with circuits and wasn’t limited by sticking with something simple.”

This ability to create experiences that translate for novice or more experienced learners is something worth developing. To us, the level of “tinkerability” is what can help determine this, but also the way you choose to frame the prompt or goal at the outset. By giving permission for people to start where they are, but being ready to support the directions that they take, you’re sending a much bigger message.

“We didn’t have to plan out what we were going to do ahead of time, we just got to play with things.”

This is one of the things that I personally find frustrating when it comes to science education in particular. It’s often the case that students are asked to make plans or develop a hypothesis without any real experience with materials or phenomena. Planning what you intend to do without this experience is an awfully big ask, and often creates an unnecessary distance or level of abstraction. When allowed to engage fully with the materials, and then generate questions or plan next steps, students will be much more grounded and compelled to linger and explore

“The ideas or goals came from trying things out (and a lot of things didn’t work).”

This relates to the previous comment, but it adds the dimension of moments of potential frustration. Quite often in making and tinkering experiences things don’t work as expected. Instead of seeing these moments as disappointments or failures, they can be recognized and celebrated for what they really are: true learning moments. You’re getting feedback about what you are exploring, and the things that aren’t working as expected open other avenues or possibilities for new things to try. To do this you need to be open to recognizing these moments and not internalize failure and frustration as something that is wrong with you.

“The example you showed seemed simple (and it didn’t work so well), I was already thinking of ways I could improve it before we even started building.”

We often show an example in advance of an activity when we’re making something with others. We usually demonstrate more than one example and they’re often lacking in some way. In some cases they are incomplete, suggesting more that could be done to improve the example. In other cases they are not functional and we offer these examples as a way of showing that we value the process of making, tinkering, and iteration, not necessarily a perfect finished product.

“We were given a choice and we could decide what we wanted to do based on our own interest.“

Choice is a biggie for us, and something we try to incorporate into activities as much as possible. Allowing for choice based on personal interest and motivation also allows a facilitator to follow the learner’s lead, often opening up possibilities that wouldn’t exist if those materials or procedures were predetermined ahead of time.

“The variety of materials available made it seem like there were many possibilities.”

The palette of materials available is important to consider, whether in the physical world or on a digital screen. Sometimes a palette that is too limiting can be restrictive, other times it can be liberating. Achieving a balance takes some work (and sometimes we don’t get it right). Choices about this can go a long way towards creating and supporting more meaningful experiences.

“It wasn’t like a challenge, but we all tried to do different things, and then outdo each other in our own way.”

We try not to shy away from activities that are challenging, but don’t usually frame them as a challenge per se. We find celebrating the variety of outcomes to be much more interesting than a single or right way of doing something. We also try to support individual problem posing (and then solutions for those problems), rather than imposing our challenges on others.

“We went off topic and were supported to do that.”

We enjoyed this comment, and often wonder what cues we give about going off topic. While we do have goals for what we hope people get out of these experiences, we are motivated much more by following unexpected trajectories and tangents (they often tell us more about the potential of the activity, the learner’s ideas, and our own ability to facilitate new unexpected ideas).

“Mistakes were encouraged before we even got started.“

We don’t always get to talk at length about our philosophy or approach the way we did with this class, but we often try to acknowledge that the process of tinkering often involves mistakes or things that don’t work the way you expect. The word mistakes needs a rebranding when it comes to tinkering. Mistakes are informative and often generators of new ideas, and need to be seen for the good that they can lead to. Instead of designing and facilitating ways for learners to avoid them, we should be trying to make more of them.

“When you encouraged me to go and look at what others were doing, and help others after I was finished, I really started playing more.”

This is a strategy that works in two ways. (1) People rarely finish making and tinkering activities at the same time, so it’s good to encourage people who are finished before others to go and look at what others are doing as a way of extending their own experience. (2) More often, we use this as a way of helping people get themselves “unstuck”, especially at moments when something isn’t working., This strategy can help people step back and take a break. Observing the ways that other people are approaching a similar problem can offer new insights or ideas into how to approach their original problem (or even suggest a new idea all together).

“We could make things that were funny and meant something to us.”

The ability to personalize a project and make it your own is one of the qualities we care most about. I think it enables and empowers learners to not only self-direct their project, but the increased level of ownership can also sustain interest and meaning.

“Props or materials without an apparent function allowed us to be more creative (like the googly eyes,and art magazines for my collage).”

What’s not to love about Googly eyes. Even if we don’t put them out, we usually have a supply somewhere nearby. They lend a certain amount of humor and whimsy to the situation. Adding materials like this that are suggestive of multiple uses, (but slanted in aesthetic or humorous ways) can increase the self-expression mentioned above.

“We were able to make things we wanted to, I made something about a scary dream and she made something to give to a friend.”

Projects that allow for multiple entry points are much more interesting to me as a facilitator. I’m particularly interested in finding that “sweet spot” for initial invitations into activities. The ones that feel constrained enough that people know what to do (and get started), but not so constrained that it only suggests a single outcome or answer tend to work best. I like the way Mitchel describes activities that support this like “a room with wide walls for exploring, and high ceilings for becoming more complex over time”. This requires the activity to be designed for complexity throughout the activity. Here again is something that could be explored further because I feel we’re developing hunches about this in the Tinkering Studio, but haven’t arrived at a universal answer yet. We’re still tinkering with this idea.

“There were so many different ways to do the activity and the initial instructions weren’t specific about how to go about it.”

You can imagine ways that these activities could be much more limited in terms of choice or outcome if facilitated toward a single solution. When learners are allowed to create things that mean something to them it supports an increased level of commitment in the entire group. When you’re able to share your creation with others you may appreciate different approaches and perspectives. This reinforces an important idea about the tinkering approach, that there are often many ways to approach a single problem.

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