The Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, led by Mitchel Resnick SM ’88, PhD ’92, is known for its educational innovations: the Computer Clubhouse Network, an after-school environment where kids from underserved communities learn to express themselves creatively with new technologies; a 30-year collaboration with the LEGO company begun by Resnick’s mentor, the late MIT professor Seymour Papert, which yielded the robotics kits branded as LEGO Mindstorms; and Scratch, a visual programming language and online community where kids construct and collaborate on interactive stories, games, and animations. Driving all the group’s endeavors is a fervent belief in the power of learning through design. Resnick will expand on these ideas in a forthcoming book for the MIT Press titled Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play.
How do you describe your group’s design-oriented approach to learning?
MR: The best learning happens when people are designing meaningful projects that build on their passions in a playful spirit—starting with an idea, making a prototype, getting feedback, iterating, experimenting. There’s something special about making and creating things. A former MIT professor, Don Schön, famously talked about design as “a conversation with materials.” When you create something based on your ideas, that gives you new ideas.
What is the difference, educationally speaking, between a kid building what’s on the LEGO box, versus making whatever’s in his or her imagination?
MR: Too often, kids are led into situations where there’s one correct solution and one path for getting there, and that’s not a very good foundation for developing as a creative thinker. But a blank slate can also be intimidating. We’re always trying to provide kids with opportunities to decide on their own goals and pathways, but also enough structure to help them succeed. For example, we currently have a National Science Foundation grant to develop what we call microworlds—a hip-hop dance microworld, for example—with collections of Scratch programming blocks well-designed for creating a particular type of project. This is based on an idea from Seymour Papert about simplified, constrained worlds that still have flexibility within them. Design always has constraints, but we don’t want it to be a straightjacket.
What is Lifelong Kindergarten’s main focus now?
MR: The Computer Clubhouses started almost 25 years ago in Boston and now there are about 100 of them around the world. We still act as advisors and try out new ideas there. And we’re still actively collaborating with the LEGO company, exploring how kids learn through play. Right now, though, our group is most focused on supporting the rapid growth of Scratch. Every month there are more than 10 million unique visitors to the Scratch website, half of whom are from outside the United States, and every day 20,000 new projects are shared in the Scratch online community. It keeps us busy. We’re constantly adding new features and possibilities—developing a mobile version of Scratch, localizing Scratch to fit the needs and interests of kids from different parts of the world, and connecting Scratch to the physical world with robotics and sensors.
That raises an interesting point. Scratch and LEGO both involve designing and building, but one output is virtual and one is tangible. How does that change the learning experience?
MR: I don’t think virtual versus physical is the most important issue. I’m more focused on whether the child is in charge of the design process. If I go to a toy store and see a dinosaur that dances when you sing to it, I figure the designers at the toy company must have learned a lot creating that toy, but I’m not so sure the kids are learning a lot by interacting with it. Similarly, online, some kids might be playing pre-packaged games, while other kids are creating their own stories, games, animations. Kids will have the richest learning experience when they’re the ones doing the designing. It matters less what the medium is. Ideally, we want to provide kids with opportunities to design in different media and contexts; that way, they’ll get a deeper understanding of the design process.