Thursday, June 28, 2012

Everybody Make Tracks! Why open-ended exploration is vital to learning, progress, and evolution.

My family has a lot of Brio train tracks. Yes. A LOT. I had quite a bit when I was a child - nearly enough to reach from one end of our 40-foot-long house to the other, and my husband had a similar amount, although his was somewhat thicker due to being from the early as opposed to the late 1970's. When we had children we put our sets together and added a few new pieces (those great tight curves that didn't exist when we were little, some fancy 'skytrain' supports, and a few non-Brio compatible track pieces that are much more affordable, and just as good). Having this much Brio means that we have a great time as a family building extensive rail-systems in the livingroom, or sometimes into other rooms. And working together means that we often have issues where one person's plan is impeded by another's. This is where things actually get creative. This kind of system-building is open-ended. There are infinite ways to solve any problem, which inspires creativity, creative exploration and (when working in groups) group-problem-solving.

Even the (admittedly large) limit of our collection is a good thing, because it promotes a different kind of problem-solving: making the best out of a specific set of resources. Running into obstacles (shortage of track; cranky sister; dog knocking over hills) is one of the best motivations for finding a creative solution. And what solutions we find!!

Imagine if we all accepted that for any given problem or question there were infinite possible solutions? That any time we get stumped we can continue along the old path and keep trying again, but we can just as easily take things apart and make a new beginning on the same good path, or make an entirely new concept. We can exchange a curve for a switch; a straight for a hill, or even run extensive tracks into closed spaces and then escape them with hills, cross-tracks, and tunnels. We can run tracks up onto the couch; connect broken links with blocks, paper, or our fingers; we can turn the tracks upside down to use them differently, and create sculptures with them, sideways! There is always room for change; always opportunity to make new roads; always the possibility of a failed plan, and infinite ways to adjust those plans!

There is a huge difference between doing research on a problem where a particular answer is already commonly accepted and the research consists only of finding others' answer and documentation, vs. researching purely by postulation, observation and exploration, where either there is no commonly accepted solution, or the querant does not know of or believe in any. The first is not creative; the second is. And in my opinion, only the second holds much merit.

I just took the kids to Science World, where we saw the Da Vinci exhibit, and their newly-renovated diggs. I wasn't that impressed. I've been going to Science World since it was the Science Centre, downtown, and it seems to me that most of the actually interesting features have not changed much in the past 15 years or so. There have been plenty of additions, but many of them are more gimmicky than interesting. Or, at worst, they're just cash-grabs. For example, how does a child learn about the drawbacks of our consumerist lifestyle by sliding down a plastic slide in the middle of what appears (only from the outside; not inside the slide) to be a molded-plastic garbage-heap? No. Not good. There are a few great features, though; things which allow for open-ended experimentation and observation. Some of these are the 'golden hands' electrical circuit, the infra-red camera, which allows us to experiment endlessly with heat and cold, the water-play and damming area, and the bee exhibit, which allows us not only to watch the bees' behaviour inside, but then to go out and look at them on the outside of the building. This kind of open-ended opportunity for experimentation is what inspires the scientist in each of us.

I am routinely disappointed by "science experiments" designed for kids, where the object is simply to teach the kids some particular "fact" or "theory". What does this say of the creators' or presenters' respect for the childrens' abilities? Not much! And children know this. They know that their research is intended only to help them achieve a particular preconceived bit of learning, and that they are expected to accept and trust in the "fact" they are having demonstrated. Many children might feel patronized or even (in my case) completely insulted. At worst, they feel inadequate as scientific minds capable of discovery.

My son came back from a play date recently, and told me he was disturbed to learn that his friend was being mislead: "We played his science quiz on the computer, and one of the questions was 'God made the crops to give us food -- true or false' ... and I could only get it right by answering 'true'!!" He was rather horrified about his friend's welfare. Never mind the religious issue; what are we teaching our children by presenting them with "facts" and expecting them to learn such absolutes? My son wanted an alternative! He wanted to get the question right by answering from his own thoughts! Is that too much to ask of his world? Yes -- we all have to be tolerant of others' methods of teaching, but I really can't accept that we box our children in by expecting them to believe instead of to explore.

As an art teacher, I have taught so many students (both children and adults) who feel that they "can only draw" such-and-such, or who strive to be like other 'artists' they know of. I feel like this is a tragedy. In measuring up to others, or to others' standards, we can never reach new heights. Innovation comes from reaching outside the known universe and into the vastness of our own individual creativity. A coercive approach to teaching, even when we set up circumstances that lead our children into believing that they're discovering an idea that is in actuality preconceived (how convoluted is that?!), is disastrous to all learning, progress and evolution. Please let's give our children the best we can; let's give them the freedom not to follow us, but to lead us in their explorations. Let us ask them what they can teach us!

As Mister Rogers says, You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind!