Find your unique gear–The Reflection of Dr. Papert’s “The Gears of My Childhood”

There is a Chinese saying that goes: “You may figure out a person’s future from his childhood.” I think it applies well to the experience that Dr. Seymour Papert shared with us in “The Gears of My Childhood”.

It seems that all the important turning points which Dr. Papert encountered can be traced back to the first gear or gear system that brought him joy in his early childhood. And it was the starting point which drove his development as a human being and a researcher.

Dr. Papert’s experience makes me think that it might be a human natural instinct to love fiddling with objects and then it becomes a drive and a prompt to explore the world around us. By building things, we are also building the connections between us and the physical world.When it happens more frequently, then it forms a way or mode of thinking. Based on that, one can find the law behind what the superficial phenomena are and discover various possibilities.

“By the time I had made a mental gear model of the relation between x and y, figuring how many teeth each gear needed, the equation had become a comfortable friend.” For someone like me who is not that good at Mathematics, I am still not able to thoroughly figure out how the equation relates to the mental gear model. However I can emphasize the thrilling feeling when me and my student “clicked” and discover something new during the making project. It echoes with what Dr. Papert told us in the Foreword of his book:“Assimilating equations to gears certainly is a powerful way to bring old knowledge to bear on a new object. But it does more as well.” As for me, I feel that the Making projects has a powerful affective aspect of assimilation.

“But I was painfully aware that some people who could not understand the differential could easily do things I found much more difficult. Slowly I began to formulate what I still consider the fundamental fact about learning: Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult. Here too I was developing a way of thinking that would be resonant with Piaget’s. The understanding of learning must be genetic. It must refer to the genesis of knowledge.”

In this case, I guess every child or every person has their own unique gear. But can everyone find their “gear”? Or can we help them to find something that THEY love and can be applied as a bridge to understand more abstract ideas and the world. It seems that unique gear can’t be cloned or taught, but must be discovered.

Through making, I found that one of my gears is to open to discovering new possibilities. While embracing the uncertainty, the projects inspired both myself and my students. Four years ago, my former students did a mini “exhibition project” based on the theme of the “Chinese culture” unit in my Chinese second language class. Despite of the limited time and materials, the products that students made were out of my expectation. That experience gave me the first taste of the charm of making.

What making projects brings is like the turning of different gears, some are turning one way, and others are going the opposite way, yet they work together and also bring new thoughts and ideas and a greater force in teaching and learning. That’s why when I was introduced to “Makerspace”, I immediately wished to join it and make it “clicked” into more learning experiences.


Here follows is one of the products from my “pre-Makerspace” project:

1.Exhibition pavilion (one side is a clocktower shape of western style and the other side is of a Chinese pavilion style )