Can you recall the secret thrills of your childhood? The deep fascinations that enraptured you across worlds? We might call them obsessions, fixations, or phases — as doomed to end as the passing of seasons — for even as much as I was filling my room and imagination with dinosaurs, I never became a paleontologist. Neither did Seymour Papert, MIT faculty who “developed an intense involvement with automobiles before the age of two,” become an auto engineer.The deep fascinations of our childhood are but infantile experiences — and so we are quick to forget them in the cultivative grounds of our becoming.
For Papert, however, these pastimes of playing with car parts — turning gears around in hand, rotating all manner of circular objects against each other, learning the stories of their functioning — fostered within him a deep love for gears that transcended merely innocent playthings. The gears instead served as material medium to the universe’s most poetic distillations. Car child did not become car professional; he became a mathematician.
He also became a cyberneticist and renowned learning theorist, responsible for both the 1:1 computing initiatives and the constructionist movements rippling across education to this day. As a preface to his seminal book on constructionism, Mindstorms, Papert reflects on the gears of his childhood. Gears were, he describes, a transitional object, both abstract and sensory, connecting with both the formal knowledge of mathematics and the body knowledge of the child. In turn, as he turned wheels in head and hand alike, the complex patterns of differentials and transmission shafts and mental gear models provided the means for Papert the child to see mathematics in his own world. Multiplication tables and variables and algebraic equations alike were all embedded in the workings of the gears! Thus they were no longer abstract, but rather comfortable friends substantiated and reified in the things he had come to know and love.
This notion of knowing — what it means to know something, to learn, to develop knowledge — formed the central thesis of Papert’s career. Knowledge is not merely absorbed through cognitive assimilation, but actively constructed through affective components as well. Papert would assert, in other words, that we learn best when we are actively engaged in constructing things in the world. Real, tangible things. Things you can hold, manipulate, feel in order to make sense of them.
Look inside schools, however, and you shall largely see a different picture: rather than learning the world by reading and writing the world, experiencing it with the fullest of our senses, we seem to learn the world by hastily memorizing facts about the world. (Or, as HGSE professor Dave Perkins suggests, we learn through aboutitis: never getting to play the whole game and only learning about the game.)
Perhaps this is why the so called maker revolution is surging today. In a school culture where learning has become so rote, so mechanized, and devoid of meaning, constructionism is an attempt to restore meaning to the hands of students. Same with hands-on learning and student-centered pedagogy. When going to school means jumping through hoops, and when boredom in the classroom is higher than ever, we as educators are called to shift what it means to be learning in school.
But there are problems with these movements as well. Hands-on activities like making slime or crafting grecian urns can offer the illusion of disciplinary engagement — this is science, this is cultural literacy, and hey the kids are having fun too! But following cookbook instructions does not equal scientific inquiry and slapping gluey newspaper on balloons does not equal historical analysis. Similarly, making a model of a cell, whether it is from paper or cake or plastic, lends no further understanding of how cells function if the student is not also thinking how their model works as a model for cells! What are the parts, how are they connected, why do they look the way they do, how are they complex? Too often we leap into hands-on activities with the belief that because they are fun, they are engaging and therefore students will learn more deeply. But we are mistaken when having fun merely means being entertained. Through the trap of passivity we shall learn nothing.
Papert was prescient to point out that constructionism was supposed to be an analogue of instruction, a vital counterpart to be used in tandem with direct instruction — yes, direct instruction can be good! — but it was not supposed to be an absolute replacement. Perhaps, in this manner, we would be wise to seek such balance between thinking and doing: head and hand. Both are vital for the richness of learning we so desire.
But I also think a third component is left out, and that is the heart. When Papert writes of his involvement with gears, he does not limit his language to just cognitive and sensorimotor actions. He is adamant in describing the emotional forms of his play: positive affect, feelings of joy, wonder, magic, and love. And he speaks on love quite often — most pointedly, when he asserts that the “essence of the story” is not in the doling out of gear sets for all future generations of children but that he so poignantly “fell in love with the gears.” Papert’s successes, as he would ascribe, were not due to interacting with gears as objects — rather due to falling in love with the gears as more than objects, as a conduit across intellectual and emotional worlds. (Unfortunately, today’s ed tech does less to foster such experiences of connected learning than it does to turn classrooms into shiny Skinner boxes.)
I think this concept of love is worth further attention in teaching and learning. Not love as a toxic unwavering positivity, and definitely not love as dedication to test scores. I mean love as understanding, interconnection, interbeing. The phenomenon whereby through deepest care, expansive listening, and attending to another, such stretching of our perceptive faculties brings us to “see another as a legitimate other” (Humberto Maturana) and expand our notions of objects from that of reductive othering It to that of fullest personhood Thou (Martin Buber) — surely that must be the heart of learning! Change of paradigms made manifest in our very perception of others-in-the-world, down to our most fundamental cognitive and neural architectures. What if, as educators, we invested our energy towards such heart in our curriculum? What do we want our students to love, in fullest understanding and appreciation? I think that goes far deeper than, say, what standards do we want our students to master!
Making is a vital act. Not because it is assumed to be fun, or entertaining, or an escape from the traditional disciplines of schooling — though all of the above are often true. Making is vital because it represents what teaching and learning could and should be. When students are actively engaged in the construction of a meaningful product in order to be shared with the community, THAT is powerful learning! Uncanny, because it seems so obvious. Complex, because it is so difficult to achieve. Yet revolutionary, because it precisely what is missing in so many classrooms today.
Revolutionary, also, because it is a shift in how we relate to things in the world. Making is not just about giving kids things to put their hands on. It’s about embracing the agentivity of children as learners, and their agency over media and the material world. It’s about shifting the paradigm from students as receivers of knowledge to students as constructors of knowledge. It’s about letting go of the mindset of command and control. It’s about liberation. It’s about the heart of what it means to be human: fully sensing and making sense of the complex world in which we are bodily immersed.
We live in a time where we are profoundly disconnected from nature, from each other, and our own selves. We are so disembodied, and we yearn to become whole. I daresay that making is not just vital but sacred to being human. Without it, we are lost. So let us come to our senses, and make way. This is the way.