Trevis Rothwell's weblog

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Learning Creative Learning finale

02 May 2013

The MIT Media Lab course on Learning Creative Learning for Spring 2013 has come to an end. While the course boasted twenty or so in-person students who received academic credit, I was one of over 10,000 online students who signed up just for fun. Statistics show that less than 10% of students registered in such online classes actually participate meaningfully, with recent anecdotes suggesting that the number may be closer to 4%. I would estimate that around 150 people (1-2%) appeared to be engaged with Learning Creative Learning.

I’ve written elsewhere about some specific things that we explored in this course, but the major takeaway for me was simply reinforcement of the value of creative learning: don’t just read a book or listen to a lecture, but do something with what you are learning. Reading the popular news over the past couple of years, a lot of people seem thrilled with the free online classes offered by such great institutions as Harvard or Stanford. Big name lectures broadcast on the web is indeed interesting, but if we think we are amazing students just because we listen to amazing lectures, we are fooling ourselves. Write about what you are studying. Build something with the knowledge you’ve gained. Contribute. Create.

The final LCL session was an opportunity for students to offer ideas to the teaching staff on ways to improve the course. The biggest problem cited over and over was that, while there was plenty of interaction amongst the class participants overall, dividing the class into small groups for deeper discussion really didn’t work. If you have a small group of ten people, and only 10% of them participate in the discussion, then you don’t get a very lively discussion!

Despite such shortcomings, many aspects of the course were great. Interesting lectures and guest speakers, plenty (but not too much) good reading, and much emphasis on doing something rather than just consuming facts. I look forward to seeing how this course and related efforts develop in the future.

Mindstorms – Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas

20 April 2013

I just finished reading Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, the first couple of chapters of which were assigned readings for the MIT Media Lab course on creative learning, but I found so enjoyable that I kept going.

The central topic of the book is about the Papert’s LOGO/Turtle programming environment, which I had used myself in elementary school. I saw Turtle programming then as an introduction to computer programming in general: writing scripts to make the “turtle” on the screen move around and draw pictures. Papert’s intentions were in fact much deeper than that; he developed the Turtle programming environment for the purpose of creating situations in which children could learn about basic concepts of Newtonian physics (how objects move) and differential geometry (how shapes can be constructed).

While much of the book uses the Turtle programming environment as an example, the main thesis of the book is that people learn best when they are engrossed in an environment in which to make use of what they are learning, rather than learning abstractly, disconnected from application of the ideas. Papert brings up the challenge of learning a foreign language: would you learn French better by sitting in a classroom memorizing books, or by living in France for a month, communicating with native speakers? The goal of the Turtle system, then, was to provide an artificial place for children to go to engage in ideas of physics and geometry, where those were not just abstract concepts but things to play with and to create with.

But Papert’s grand vision was not to create Turtle and be done with it. He hoped that it would serve as an example for others, to continue to use computers to create environments in which people could engage with ideas for better learning of any imaginable subject. Years after writing the book, he mused that, unfortunately, what most readers got out of the book was a study of the Turtle system itself, rather than the ideas behind it.

A very good read for those interested in education, and the intersection of education with technology. Oddly enough, the book does not appear to be available in digital format yet, but you can buy a printed copy at Amazon.