Mitchel Resnick’s book, Lifelong KindergartenCultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play, argues that a mistake schools make is that they become less and less like kindergarten as children move through them, and not more. Specifically, too many schools present children with fewer and fewer opportunities to be creative and collaborative in the classroom as they get older. But this approach flies in the face of Cathy Davidson’s (and others’) belief that “two-thirds of today’s grade-school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.” How will the future generation be ready to work and live in a world where creativity and collaboration are required if they don’t get to practice those and other skills now?

Resnick, who has worked at MIT’s Media Lab for many years, reminds readers of the origin of Kindergarten and its “gifts” from 19th century German educator, Friedrich Froebel, who “understood that children learn best by interacting with the world around them.” To support their learning, Froebel designed 20 toys, known as his gifts, including geometric tiles, blocks, colored paper, sticks, peas. Using this simple collection, children would “recreate” their worlds, thus learning and internalizing countless lessons about what it means to be a thinking, living human.

For obvious reasons, Resnick deplores the educational philosophy that replaces play in kindergarten with “literacy bootcamps” and the like. It’s somewhat easy to imagine elementary schools heeding the call and doubling down on the Four P’s that Resnick prescribes: projects, passion, peers and play. But what about in middle and high schools, where secondary school placement and college admissions loom so large?

As a high school and middle school administrator, and a former AP English teacher, I can attest to the challenges educators face when they replace standardized curricula with creative enterprises. Last year, when a colleague and I paused our AP curriculum for two weeks to run a design thinking project with our seniors, we both encountered serious resistance to the project — not from parents, as might have been expected, but from students themselves.  I remember a student begging me to “just have a test” because it was “so much easier that way.” Another was skeptical of the entire design thinking framework, questioning the good of worrying about others enough so much as to feel compelled to think about the world through their eyes.

And yet, watching these amazing students figure out how to design a better poetry lesson, how to interview others to learn about their experience of poetry, how to work together in small groups, and how to deliver a lesson to a group of peers and teachers, I knew that the project had succeeded in the only sense that really matters: these A students had learned something that pushed them toward becoming X students, people Resnick says are “constantly exploring new ideas and inventing new possibilities.”

Whether they learned something new, or rediscovered something that they once knew in kindergarten, I can’t say. But the experience cemented my belief that a good education continues to hinge on a few essential elements, much like Froebel’s gifts: thoughtful design, a sprinkling of discomfort, lots of patient support, and a clear vision of where we are all headed, together.

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