Salty, Messy Fun: Mindstorms Reflection


by Mark Schreiber -

Seymour Papert was definitely ahead of his time when he wrote mindstorms in the 80s.  Unfortunately he still seems to be ahead of his time some 30 years later.  Instead of hands-on and minds-on education, the current trends in education have pushed us towards accountability, standards and a common framework for education.   I think a large reason for this shift towards mandated norms of educational knowledge come from the simple fact that it is efficient.  Paperts’ ways of education can be, well, messy.

Right now, I’m in a coffee shop working.  I often work here.  It’s just the right environment for some activities, some work, that I need to accomplish.  I go here because it fits my learning and work style.  There is a 4-year-old across the room right now who is playing with all of the items of a nearby table.  His parents are a couple tables down.  First He plays with the crayons that they gave to him, then the table menu, and now, the salt shaker.  He’s shaken it on seats, the table, and his brother.  I’m waiting to see if he will be unscrewing the lid soon and what will come of that exploration.  Now, why do I mention this?  I mention it because he is learning through his play.  Unfortunately it is a messy way to learn, dare I even say an “unsafe” way to play.  Salt in the eye?  That could be painful.  So, what would I do if this was my son?  What would you do?  I think most of us would take the salt away.  We’d replace it with a nice kids menu and have the child do something less messy and safer.  It’s just easier for us as parents and requires less clean up.  It’s easier to evaluate too, when he gets to the end of the maze that’s on the back of the kids menu we can say he accomplished a great task.  Start to finish with 1 curvy long line!

This is exactly what education has become, a start to finish maze of tasks. Give the kid the crayons, and let him do the maze right?  Yet I think Papert would have not just tolerated, but actually encouraged the messy salt play.  Yes, it requires more clean up, and it has a less definable standards of achievement and in the end he may not have learned anything that he could verbalize.  Yet, the child has learned something, maybe just scaffolding for future learning, maybe the start of some other genius thought.  I’ll never know.

In Mindstorms, Papert said, ”But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, freeform classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting the children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive elements in it and eliminating noxious ones.  This is a more ambitious undertaking than introduction a curriculum change, but one which is feasible under contusions now emerging.”

I’m glad I have the flexibility to work in a coffee shop.  I’m glad I’ve had the chance to chew on Papert’s thoughts of how to help students learn by doing; even how to help students make computers do something through programming.  I’m glad that this little child entered my world, influenced this post, and learned about the properties of salt all at the same time.  So, lets look around our environment and see what new constructive elements we can find and what noxious ones we can remove.