I Keep Learning; My Reflections on Dr. Papert’s “Gears of My Childhood”

Growing up, I loved school. Not because it was the most fun place to be, but because I enjoyed learning. I started school early as compared to my peers and that meant sometimes enduring bullies or kids who loved to mock the “tiny ones” in class. That aside, I always looked forward to school and the new things that awaiting my exploration. I read books to learn English, which is my third language. It was not very easy as we barely owned a library at my remote village school. Most books were donations from European and American schools which meant a huge cultural difference between the content in the books and my actual life experiences. As much as it was strange, it also presented the opportunity to understand that there are different cultures out there with kids my age trying to learn the same language.  

When I was in my third grade I visited my aunt, who was an English teacher at an urban school. With her, I found a collection of books, mostly supplementary readers recommended by the Ministry of Education in Kenya. The interesting part was that these books were written by local writers. The examples made more sense and found that I was reading faster and understanding better because I would read about things I could associate with. I know I was too young to realize I was learning faster but that experience helped me learn English better. Fast forward, since most of the lessons in Kenyan school were taught in English, I could better understand Mathematics and the sciences. I have always been a steady learner, sometimes slow but when I get there I trust my expertise in a given topic and would trust myself to explain it in the simplest way. As Albert Einstein famously put it ” If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well ”  

Two decades later, I was at The University of Nairobi studying Electrical & Electronics Engineering looking forward to working in a huge corporate probably in the energy sector or telecommunications space. Upon graduation, I did work for a telecommunications firm. I grew as a design engineer. I learnt quickly while at work and mostly I enjoyed how design concepts translated into tangible solutions for the clients. I did not stay long in the practice because I struggled to fit in the work culture and most of my frustrations could not go away unless I changed jobs. That is how I found my way into the Edtech space in Kenya and I have loved it since. I joined Global Minimun Inc as an intern and for the first time, I was in an organization that explores a different kind of learning which is learner-centred. I learned how to question my assumptions about learning and became keener on giving my students the freedom to decide how they want to learn. 

I enjoy most how project-based learning enables students to grow their creative confidence and make solutions they want for their communities. In Dr Papert’s Gears of My childhood, he explores how individuals learn depending on models that are available to them and how they learn those models. Further, the article explains why different people understand different topics better than others. Looking back at the Gears of My Childhood, I see how through making, learners can build knowledge and develop models that enhance their understanding. It has been 4 years in the maker education space and invention education and throughout my work, I have enjoyed learning alongside my students. Most of my students come from communities with very low resources and sometimes they have very minimal exposure to computers and technology in general. However, I have observed that, by providing these resources to them in a setting outside of their usual school routine, they are able to tinker and create exciting learning experiences. 

It is my hope that more students will gain access to similar resources through maker education initiatives that are now growing in Kenya. This way, students will be able to benefit from technology as an instrument of learning and innovation. At a young age, maybe they will discover the gears of their childhood and gain the confidence to freely explore their areas of interests as they build their careers and beyond.