Constructivism & Learning – Reflection from Session 3 of “Learning Creative Learning”

* What ideas in the readings interested or resonated with you?

Seymour Papert’s seventh chapter of The Children’s Machine, “Instructionism vs. Constronstructionism” was incredible. Particularly, his argument that school overvalues abstract reasoning or thinking while undervaluing concrete thinking resonated deeply with me. As a teacher of text from literature to media, new and old, I often find myself talking about abstract reasoning based on abstract data sets like “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” by e e cummings with reverence. At the same time, I brew a variety of British, American, and Belgian beers as a hobby. I meditate, and I snowboard, and I cycle. I enjoy working on engines. I’ve learned that precision and speed on a snowboard mirror my experience in yoga meditation. I like writing and brewing beer for similar reasons – both allow me to create something new, based on an existing form, and engage in a reflective cycle of improvement. I learn from all of these activities, and each involves some level of concrete and abstract thinking. I find each valuable. Linking to the Maker pieces, I greatly enjoyed them and believe in making as a way of being creative. In my secondary school experience, I found great solace in the photography darkroom, making photographs from my negatives tangibly in a way that Photoshop and a printer has not been able to replicate. This space in my day was essential. Schools should have maker spaces, absolutely, for kids to hang out, mess around, and geek out on low tech and high tech making.

* How could you apply these ideas to help others learn in your own work, family, or community?

This is a big question – how do I turn an externally moderated course like AP or IB Literature into a tangible maker experience, where the concrete meets the abstract? I don’t know. My AP Lit Badges have yielded one student-created dress based on a Tennyson poem, which was awesome. I have also created a choice menu for assessment outcomes for a choice novel or drama unit to end AP Lit. Still, my students are either in full embrace of the primacy of “the formal stage” from Piaget as the top of the hierarchy. Few make. Some create, certainly, but nobody is building beautiful cabinets, and my school has zero facilities for making anything other than music, art, and digital anything. We teach to AP/IB outcomes, and there’s no making. This is not a dig; this is reality. Certainly, my Digital Journalism course asks students to explore digital media through making digital media, which is a kind of making, but nothing so tangible as the Soulcraft laid out in this book that began to change the way I see my teaching practice. After reading “Big Ideas Need Love, Too,” a nagging question about, if not the value of making media, the lack of tangible making in my teaching became totally realized. I don’t want to be an agent of superficiality, driving kids to ever more banal forms of expression, turning them into little Alex Joneses. However, I believe in bringing kids to language and inquiry into their world through digital journalism. How else can I make this concrete, real, making? I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.

The Tale of My Blankie – from “Gears of My Childhood”

For whatever reason new, first time parents make decisions that seem, in retrospect, hilarious, my parents bought for me a white baby blanket, waffle fabric like old fashioned long underwear with a synthetic silken border. A melange of vomit and other bodily fluids, dirt, foodstuffs of all kinds, pet hair, and Play Dough slowly, almost generationally melded into a gray Earth tone no bleach could penetrate. White was their choice, but experience turned the blanket into the color of a November Ohio sky.

I have no actual memory of the synthetic silken portion of the blanket. According to my parents, I immediately set about tearing it off, so the frayed, soft edges of cotton are what I recall. I’m not surprised I hated the snaggy, slick feel of polyester silk; I hate synthetic fabrics still. Once altered and mine, the blanket became a constant companion and the basis of a narrative that still shapes not only how I learn, but how I interact with the world.

Somehow, the blanket became wedded to an imaginary, invisible friend named “Ghost.” Today, I can see that Ghost allowed me to weaves stories through my daily activities, processing in words and imagining worlds within worlds. When I first read Seymour Papert’s “Gears of My Childhood” essay introducing Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, I thought “Oh, it’s books for me.” Books and stories have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but of course the stories came first – those read to me and invented by me.

Even today, watching my 4 1/2 year old daughter spin stories of play and possibility, I see the power of narrative to hammer experience into something comprehensible. In learning anything, I try, observe, reflect, and revise reflexively. Experience teaches, and narrative contextualizes the teaching intellectually and emotionally, in the way that we feel stories.

As I grew older, the blanket and I curled up on heating grates, couches, into corners, and in bed, endlessly reading. I read early, and continued reading. I’ve never really stopped. Growing up soaked in fiction led to an internalizing of narrative structures, and for better or worse, I recognize narratives unfurling in the world around me as a result. I explain ideas through stories. I see the inner narratives of people around me and their effects. I write stories. I am insufferable at the movies, often identifying the entire plot arc before the ice melts in my Coke and usually explaining my prediction to the groans of my wife.

Like Papert explains in his essay, the affective nature of narratives for me is anchoring and positive. Like Papert, nobody told me to read or love reading; in fact, people often begged me to stop or read less. When I write, I disappear somehow, absorbed. I still love imagining worlds, people, situations, reactions, causes and effects. The love that I have for narratives is engrossing. When I can build a narrative around an experience or through an experience of classroom learning, I succeed. When I can’t, I fail.

Through history, biological sciences, and some mathematics, I connected and made relationships with the subject matter, internalizing, revising, and building interpersonal narratives. When this process failed or was broken for me by teachers, I disconnected from the material intellectually and emotionally.

Beyond school and more importantly for my life today, my early experiences in the outdoors were regular and intense, leading to a very close relationship with the natural world. When I get to choose my leisure activities, they are outdoors or creative, like photography. Through these activities, I dream stories. I sit at night, quietly imagining the next time I run a rapid or snowboard through a tightly wooded glade, visualizing. Outside, I relax and my mind whirs through stories. Inside, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, I often drift off to a Colorado mountainside or a Slovenian river.

So why a blanket? Attachment to a material object is an attachment to memory, and my memory is story, image, and a marriage of the two. Imagining a friend based somehow on the blanket is my earliest memory of making stories, constructing narratives. The stories we tell ourselves are the foundation of our identity. I process the world through stories and conceptualize of complex relationships between ideas, objects, and people as narratives. Further, I see narratives in my mind’s eye, experiencing them, feeling them. The blanket is the genetic object behind my relationship to narratives.

Papert claims “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.” My experience as a teacher and a learner supports this claim. I feel lucky to have a diverse and useful set of mental models for learning, but each gets processed reflectively through an internal narrative. From my earliest important material object to my career as an English teacher building literacy and writing skills with children, roots from this genesis of learning through narratives spread broadly, connecting it all into a (mostly) coherent whole.