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Lifelong Kindergarten: Reinventing How We Educate Our Kids

By Shlomo Maital


   When my wife and I were raising our four children, I recall bringing them to kindergarten some mornings. Secretly, and often, I wished I could stay there with them and play.   Can I join? Can I play too? With blocks, crayons, Lego? I even thought of trying to set up adult kindergartens, where grown-ups could become kids again and relearn how to play.  That happens again, when I pick up our grandchildren from pre-school.

   This is why I loved Mitchel Resnick’s new book, Lifelong Kindergarten; Cultivating Creativity Through Passion, Peers, Projects and Play (MIT Press, 2016).   Resnick, an MIT Media Lab professor, says correctly that “most schools in most countries place a higher priority on teaching students to follow instructions and rules, than on helping students develop their own ideas, goals and strategies.”  

   The reason?   Public education, one of the world’s greatest inventions, was designed to produce workers for the first industrial revolution – for factories. But we are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Robots and artificial intelligence will do the routine work. We need creative people. But we haven’t yet figured that out, and so our schools remain mired in the 19th C.

     The best kindergartens are places where children learn through playing together. The operative word is “learn”. There is enough structure to guide their learning. But not so much as to destroy their initiative and creativity.

       Worldwide, kindergartens are becoming more like schools. Small children are getting homework and work sheets. The opposite should happen. Schools should become more like kindergartens. Resnick proposes four P’s – passion, play, peers and projects.   Ignite kids’ passion. Let them learn through discovery, by working on projects together. This, of course, is how they will work as adults. And while the learning is serious, let it seem like play.

       As a retired but still active professor at an engineering school, Technion, I feel we are centuries behind in understanding how to reinvent education. Somehow, our students survive the rigid structured program and retain at least some of their creativity. Many launch startups.

     But – how much “creativity capital” (the present value of ideas lost because our backward educational system, focused on rules and solving canned problems, extinguishes creative ideas) is destroyed – and ignored, because it is largely hidden and unmeasured?

     Can we as parents and grandparents do anything? Here is one small step. When you buy toys for children – ask not (Resnick says) what the toy can do for the child. Ask, what can the child do with the toy?   Buy toys that stimulate creativity by letting the child decide what to make, what to invent, what to dream.   Understand that there is a reason why kids take a toy out of the box – and then play imagination games with the box.  

Nicholas Negroponte: Where Do Ideas Come From?

By Shlomo  Maital    



MIT Media Lab

   MIT Prof. Nicholas Negroponte was the featured speaker at the 20th anniversary event of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, an organization I helped found in 1994,  and now run by Ayla Matalon.  Negroponte spoke about how and why he started the Media Lab, together with MIT President Jerome Wiesner.  His plan was to create a place for outsiders, for those whose radical innovative ideas would never be accepted in conventional MIT faculties.   For 30 years the Media Lab has been a fountain of radically new ideas built on strong research foundations, with corporations lining up to pay fortunes just to gain access to those ideas.  

     “Where do new ideas come from?”  Negroponte asked the audience, rhetorically.   In one word:  “From differences.”  From people who think differently. 

     I think this explains why so few really new ideas emerge from universities, places where creativity is supposed to live but never does,  and from big corporations, which pay lip service to innovation but do everything to stamp it out.

     Universities reproduce ideas, by having students do research that in tiny incremental steps extends the research of their advisors, and generally affirms it.  Imagine a thesis that disproved the central theories of the advisor!   Tenure is gained fastest and easiest by publishing mainstream research that irritates no-one and ruffles the fewest feathers.   

    Businesses grow to global scale by operational discipline, in which people are well paid to do the same thing, again and again, with excellence and discipline.  Imagine a manager who tells his CEO that the company’s most profitable product line is becoming commoditized and should be sold or closed. 

    Neither universities nor large multinationals want their people to think differently. Nor do they hire people who are different.   This, despite the well-known finding that it is the most diverse teams that are the most innovative, and the rule that you should include a non-expert in every team, to ask the ‘dumb’ questions.

    I strongly urge my students to respond to job interviews with their own interviews. Interview the interviewer.  Find out if they really do want your creative ideas.  Find out if they celebrate failure, and welcome diversity.  Do this BEFORE you get put into the corporate blender and emerge as bland conventional porridge, instead of remaining a spicy jalapena pepper. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital