Friday, May 13, 2011

A CyberCivics Lesson Veers Off Course

Innovation companies today don't ask and don't care about basic skills, grades, or SAT scores—instead, they want to know if you can brainstorm all the possible uses of bubble wrap (Laura Seargeant Richardson, The Atlantic, May 2, 2011).
Last week our 6th grade Cyber Civics class at Journey School engaged in the Common Sense Media lesson called  “Build Your Ideal Community”. I told the students that because a meteorite had hit the earth and wiped out all its online data, they would have the opportunity to create new online communities from scratch.

This lesson is designed to help students learn how policies and practices keep online worlds collegial and safe. We talked about the meaning of governance and charter; I even held up the charter document that governs their own charter school (it weighs about ten pounds) for dramatic effect. So when they went to work (in teams) I expected lots of discussion about how they would govern and manage their domains.

That’s not what happened. 

Don’t get me wrong, every child in that classroom was engaged. But what really got them going was imagining new and wonderful activities for these worlds, and more importantly, how awesome their home page designs would be. They begged me for more time to finish their renderings and they all wanted to know when I was going to teach them how to program these worlds (boy, would I love to introduce these kids to Hackasauras!).

Although it was initially frustrating for me that this lesson veered off course, I realized that all the brainstorming, collaboration and creativity that happened instead was actually its own best lesson. After all, in case you haven’t heard, according to Newsweek the U.S. is experiencing a very serious creativity crisis. In fact, American creativity scores have been inching steadily downward since 1990, and “[i]t is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is most serious” (Bronson & Merryman, 2010, ¶ 6). Much of this is due to the reduction of art classes in elementary school.

This is a big problem. Eighty-five percent of today's companies searching for creative talent can't find it while a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future” (Richardson, 2011). Don’t bother telling the Chinese government about this; they already know. In Shanghai, where students rank 1st in the world in math  (U.S. students rank 31st in case you were wondering), “creativity is part of their national educational plan” (Mayo, 2010).

In a terrific article titled Play Power: How to Turn Around Our Creativity Crisis, Laura Sergeant Richardson writes,
Someday, rather than measuring memorization as an indicator of progress, we will measure our children's ability to manipulate (deconstruct and hack), morph (think flexibly and be tolerant of change), and move (think "with their hands" and play productively). Standardized aptitude tests will be replaced by our abilities to see (observe and imagine), sense (have empathy and intrinsic motivation), and stretch (think abstractly and systemically). We will advance our abilities to collaborate and create.
To reap the rewards of these abilities, we must set aside the myth that play and work are two separate things. Play should be our greatest work, as it is the biggest driver of innovation. Innovation companies today don't ask and don't care about basic skills, grades, or SAT scores—instead, they want to know if you can brainstorm all the possible uses of bubble wrap.
This explains why Henry Jenkins’ new media literacies include skills like play, performance, simulation, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation (Jenkins, 2006).

There are lots if pedagogies to choose from to educate kids, especially if you’re willing to veer off the main road of public education. We made the choice of placing our kids in this school a long time ago, trading the excellent academic track record of our local public school for an environment where they would be immersed in the arts, handwork, hands-on activities and lots of play (it’s a public charter that uses Waldorf teaching methods). Sure this decision cost our kids a few STAR test points early on. But like Laura Sergeant Richardson, I'll trade a few mismarked bubbles on a standardized test for proficiency with bubble wrap any day. Watching these 6th graders, including my daughter, enthusiastically creating imaginary communities with nothing more than a pencil, paper and each other, I know that this creativity, enthusiasm, perseverance and teamwork will pay off in spades during high school (I’ve already seen it with my oldest) and beyond.

This lesson turned out to be right on the mark.


Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2010, July 10). The creativity crisis. Newsweek. Retrieved from crisis.html

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robinson, A. J. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Retrieved from   

Mayo, E. (2010, December 9). Here’s why China is beating the U.S. in education. CNN. Retrieved from 

Richardson, L. S. (2011, May 2). Play power: How to turn around our creativity crisis. The Atlantic Monthy. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from crisis.html