Reflection on “The Gears of My Childhood”

The title The Gears of My Childhood written by Seymour Papert raises many questions and sparks as I reflect on my own life experiences, both of my own childhood experiences and being an educator experiencing my student’s learning experiences.

The word Gear metaphorically meant to me a slight push that put things in motion for you to learn from your own experiences.

As John Dewey pointed out in his book Democracy and Education “An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance. An experience, a very humble experience, is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (or intellectual content), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory. It tends to become a mere verbal formula, a set of catchwords used to render thinking, or genuine theorising, unnecessary and impossible”.

Experiences should be of such nature which drives inquiry and demands thinking. But what is there to inquire? Well, it can be about everything and anything about various aspects of life that children have curiosity and questions on and mostly they are open-ended. The children should be given opportunity to explore their questions like babies explore the world around them. They drop things to test for their strength and sound and form theories by experimenting. These experiences and exploring with things have been the Gears of my life as they have provided an opportunity for me to think, reflect and learn.

As a child I loved playing games a lot. But the major question back then was that how can I possibly possess all those games or toys which I saw? The constant urge to play pushed me to make new games on my own. Hence, I started making games from old cardboard boxes, newspaper and twigs. The games which I saw at my friends or relatives places, I made them on my own and iterated the rules to suit the material or the structure. These self-made games were not only exciting to play but actually made a lot of my mental models around problem solving, generating ideas and resource optimisation which I didn’t realise until I studied these concepts in economics and management during my graduation.

Not only the concepts but it gave me a perspective to find a way through the maze if I got stuck. This was visible very soon when during my graduation I met with an accident and was not be able to write my exams due to steel rods in both my arms. At that point of time everyone asked me to drop out but I was only thinking of possibilities of how can I write my exams? And I got the answer in making. As I was making something I realised that I could easily cut using a scissors with both of my hands. This gave me the idea to try writing with both my hands simultaneously to compensate for the loss of speed of writing with only one hand. In the end I gave my exams and this whole experience gave me a big push to keep looking for solutions.

This problem solving and learning by doing had always been an integral part of my learning. But in spite of knowing and experiencing it, it was very hard to internalise it. A lot of reflection was needed to understand all the threads especially when I had to teach. When I started to teach I had understood that the focus of my lesson plan should be on doing and learning would happen with it. So I designed many such tasks but as I say they were mere tasks in the end. So the children were experiencing making but a question arose as to the nature and extent of learning. In a class when children were learning about alternative sources of energy they made wind mills, solar cookers and learnt about the concepts through making. It was just a concept with no connection as to why were we making it or what’s the need to learn this. They had no chance to incorporate what they were doing into a larger picture. The focus was on just completing the task. Every child followed the same process incorporating the same design. There was no opportunity to alter the course of task to fit the meaning-making of any individual student.

This made me think and reflect on my experience of observing my students doing and learning, as to what learning is and is making or doing actually resulting in any kind of learning?

I had to stay with the question for a long time till one day when I along with my co-teacher was doing a project on the working of hand pump. I made a working model of the hand pump to explore the nuances with students but they seemed to be disinterested in the discussion. This was an unusual thing. On probing them, I found out that the design made by me was inappropriate and they were not sure if they should challenge or question my thinking and knowledge. Thus, raising question by children was answer to my question. Children would learn by doing only when they make things to find answers for their own questions. So in our organisation we started a Question Hour in which children  could just share their daily curiosities about anything and everything. They raised questions, discussed possibilities which they explored lot of times doing it. In one such conversation a child raised a question about alternative sources of energy.

They asked that if it’s that effective, can it solve our problem of charging a mobile phone as there was no electricity in the village and they had to walk 5-7 kilometres to a shop to charge it. To find a solution they read some books and did some trials before coming to the conclusion of making a solar mobile charger which was up and running. This not only gave us the answer to our questions but on further reflection on my life experiences I understood how questions and thinking are closely related to doing and making and learning results from this inquiry.

Since then there have been many such instances where children’s questions had led to their exploration and tinkering as well as finding provisional answers. This has led everyone in our organisation provide opportunities for students to do things and make things with both body as well as mind using hand and senses. Tinkering and Making develops a sense of resourcefulness, a discipline of working and exploring with different types of materials and tools, even when the students attempt to construct something out of their imagination. In this process the student finds a space for creative expression instead of being a passive learner.  

Aligned with the child’s propensity to meaning making any filed of knowledge  arises from curiosity, asking questions and finding provisional answers by exploring and doing . And when it is applied to the context of the child it evokes further questions. As mentioned by John Dewey experience has two core characteristics continuity and interaction. Thus if knowledge has to remain living then we have to make and re-make the connections rather than treating information as a finished product to be held in memory. 

To end with a thought which I believe in has been written by John Dewey and it has been the gear which keeps me motivated and has made me a reflective teacher:

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” 


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