Friday, June 08, 2007

Thinkering - libraries, schools, foundations

I have written many an ode to libraries. A perfect Sunday for me includes coffee, bike riding and tennis with my kid, and a spell on the couch with the New York Times Book Review and my laptop open to the home page of the SF Public Library. I read the reviews, go online, and request the books. Within days they're delivered to the branch near my home, I walk there with the dog, and stock up for a week or so. Then I switch over to and post all of the authors' backlists on my wish list. And then, usually 5-6 days later when I can't control myself anymore, I go to my local bookstore and buy something.

I also spent 24 years as a student (preK to PhD) and taught high school for another four. Schools and libraries are two institutions I know well and use a lot.

So the MacArthur Foundation's work on learning institutions of the future is of great interest to me. The Foundation is doing all kinds of things - including working with the design school of the Illinois Institute of Technology on "thinkering" spaces. This is an incredibly interesting effort to understand and prototype places where children think and tinker (hence the name) with real and virtual objects and reflect on what they've done. The results will be, I predict, very informative for the next generation of architects, teachers, parents, day care centers, and (maybe even) corporate employers.

But our need for this work (which I agree is needed) bothers me on a broad level. I have the same reaction to it that I do to the idea of "Nature Deficit Disorder" or the "The Dangerous Book for Boys." These are two ideas that result from the fact that many parents don't let their kids be kids - either from fear (legitimate in many cases), overscheduling, or planning for college admissions when the kid is 6.

For many kids in cities or those who live in areas where it is dangerous to hang around outside, the inability to play is a real loss. But for many other kids, their reasons for not getting outside more are what should be called "high class problems." In both cases it amazes me how we, as a society, can make a syndrome (or a disorder) out of choices made by families and inflicted on ourselves. Kids know how to play. They know how to ask questions, and test things, and create ideas about how and why things work certain ways. Piaget, Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and others articulated the wonders of the child as learner and the value of play ("thinkering"?) decades ago.

So my hope for the thinkering work is that it assume that its the institutions that must change, not the kids. That it assumes that kids know how to make sense of things real and virtual, and that it is our responsibility as adults to build institutions and opportunities for all kids to do their best with all types of objects - real, virtual, and, most important, imaginary.

On another tact, it is a cool project from the point of view of how the designers and techies think about systems and institutions. Anyone interested in designing change should check out the information on prototyping, design principles and system strategies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is right up my alley! Excellent, thanks so much Lucy