MIT’s Mitch Resnick on What ‘Toy Story’ Gets Wrong About the Future of Play

Digital Learning

MIT’s Mitch Resnick on What ‘Toy Story’ Gets Wrong About the Future of Play

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 19, 2017

MIT’s Mitch Resnick on What ‘Toy Story’ Gets Wrong About the Future of Play

If you’ve ever seen the Toy Story movies, you may remember the neighbor kid, Sid. His room is presented in horror-movie fashion, with dim lighting and discordant music, and the toys are all in pieces, as Sid dismantles them and remakes them in his own crazy way.

To Mitchel Resnick, an MIT Media Lab professor and early pioneer of the maker movement for kids, this Hollywood’s portrayal is problematic, and part of a larger trend toward overly regimenting education these days.

“I worry about the way the movie presents the inventor as sort of the dysfunctional character, and the bedroom with the toys that come alive on their own is the one that’s full of light and seen in a very positive light,” Resnick explains.

Resnick argues that all kids—and even grownups—should approach life the way we all did in kindergarten, where learning happened through playfully rearranging the world around us. He makes that case in his new book “Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play.” It’s an argument that the inventors of kindergarten accidentally designed the kind of learning environment needed at all levels of education these days—whether it’s in school, college, or the workplace.

EdSurge talked with Resnick this week about his new book, about what’s next for the free Scratch programming language his MIT lab developed, and about his take on what free online courses should look like (he has one coming out next month based on his book).

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (likeiTunes orStitcher).

EdSurge: I understand you're at your lab today at the Media Lab, which is a unique research space. Can you describe what the lab that you run looks like?

Resnick: We try to treat our own lab space somewhat like a big kindergarten. As I look right outside my office here, I see shelves full of different craft materials. We have sort of advanced technology mixed together with very low technology—all sorts of building things for people to be able to constantly prototype and try things out. Even in the meeting areas, it's somewhat playful. In our main area where we meet with guests is a table which is full of Lego bricks.

EdSurge: I wanted to start with your take the popular movie Toy Story. The hero of that movie is the kid named Andy and his toys that come to life. I understand you have something against the way that kind of play is portrayed with Andy and his toys?

Yes. One of the main bedrooms in the story is Andy's bedroom where all the toys come alive, and the toys are active doing all sorts of different things. There's Mr. Potato Head who's talking to the Slinky Dog. Then there's another bedroom that's across the backyard where there's another boy named Sid and Sid's bedroom has a very different feel. It's more of an invention workshop. Rather than the toy's just automated, doing things on their own, Sid is always taking toys apart, putting them back together. He's a real inventor. It feels more like an inventor's workshop, but Sid's room is presented very sinister like.

In fact, there are some real problems with Sid. Sid is sometimes cutting off the heads of dolls, but I worry about the way that the movie presents the inventor as a sort of dysfunctional character.

The bedroom with the toys that come alive on their own is the one that's full of light and seen in a very positive light. I worry that sometimes the popular media is going to glorify just the wonderful toys that do things their own as opposed to glorifying the kids who are designing, creating, and experimenting on their own.

It’s interesting because I hadn't thought that much about Sid. In his room, everything is in pieces, and it's presented as very chaotic. In some ways, that may have a lot in common with your lab.

Right. I do think Sid's bedroom does feel more like our lab. Don't get me wrong, there are some problems with Sid. There's some deviant behavior going on there. But I don't think that deviant behavior should be associated with experimenting and making, and that's what's unfortunate. Clearly, we want to try to present an inventor's workshop, one that's open with possibilities and allows everybody to take their imagination and create things that come to life.

The essential argument in your book is that kindergarten is seen as a time that young people are allowed to play and discover, and you’re arguing that other parts of life these days need to continue the spirit and ethos of kindergarten. I can imagine a lot of people would hear that and feel like, "Well there are things about kindergarten that were nice, but that being a grown-up is nothing like being in kindergarten."

I really do think that the rest of life should be more like kindergarten. We have to think about, what is it that's at the essence of kindergarten. If we go back to the traditional kindergarten, kindergarten was first invented about 200 years ago. It was explicitly designed to be different than the traditional school, where it was primarily about delivering instruction, delivering information that students who then dutifully wrote down on paper and recited it back. The early kindergartens recognized that something very different was needed for five-year-olds. The creator of the first kindergarten, Friedrick Froebel, even designed a new set of toys to encourage playful design and experimentation activities.

I think from the early kindergartens it was seen that this was a good way to start children on creative expression and creative thinking, providing them with the right materials and support to allow them to design, create, experiment, and explore. When I've looked at that idea of kindergarten, I see that it's based on four core principles that I organized my book around: projects, passion, peers, and play.

A lot of things are done in playful collaboration. They are working with their peers, not just sitting by themselves at their desk working in a solitary fashion. It's all done in a playful spirit where they're constantly experimenting and trying new things.

Unfortunately, a lot of that goes away as children go on to school. I think in a way that the inventor of kindergarten could not have known 200 years ago, I think kindergarten is incredibly well suited to the needs of today's society.

Today's children as they grow up are going to face a never-ending stream of unknown and uncertain situations. The most important thing for them to learn is how to think and act creatively—how to come up with innovative solutions to new situations that they confront. I think that approach of kindergarten—projects, passions, peers, and play—is the best way to help children develop as creative thinkers. Because if you're just learning a list of facts or a set of skills, those might be obsolete in the future, but the ability to think and act creativity will never be obsolete.

But in the book, you worry that even kindergarten is losing that spirit.

There's a real challenge today because even kindergartens are starting to become more like the rest of school with children filling out phonics worksheets and looking at arithmetic flashcards. And we want to do exactly the opposite: Make the rest of school, and the rest of life more like kindergarten because we deeply believe that that's going to be the best way to help children prepare for life in a society that's going to value and require creative thinking more than ever before.

It's a fascinating idea. I think a lot of people might be nodding their heads, but other people might be thinking, Well that all sounds good, but there are some things that kids just need to learn, and that in the wrong hands, this playfulness approach could just be a waste of time.

I think it's really important to move away from this dichotomy of either you're learning things, or you're playing. It is not one or the other. It certainly does not mean we don't think that certain concepts aren't important to learn. When children are in kindergarten, and they build a tower with blocks, they're learning about structure stability. When they're making pictures with finger paints, they're learning how colors mix. They're learning those important concepts and important skills. For me, the important issue is they're learning the skills through projects while working on projects.

Often in traditional schooling, the view is that we have to learn the skills and concepts before working on projects. You have to learn the basics first and then you can apply them. I think that's misguided because you end up learning a lot of disconnected facts and skills, and then you're not able to make use of it in a meaningful way. I think it's much more valuable to learn and more productive to learn those skills and concepts in the context of working on meaningful projects.

I guess you're applying these ideas in your lab with projects like Scratch, a programming language aimed at young people (aged 8-16). But when I look at Scratch, and the idea that kids will pick up everything as they go, does that only work for students with extensive support at school and at home—for the education haves? What demographics are you reaching with your free Scratch programming language?

Scratch is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and things have changed over that time. The number of kids who had some interaction with Scratch in the past year was more than 200 million kids, so it's a very wide range of kids. I think at the very beginning, Scratch might have been getting out there through word of mouth to just certain subsets of the population. Right now I think it's reaching kids very broadly. The fastest growing place where Scratch is being used is in schools, and it's being used in a wide variety of different types of schools.

When you talk about people being left behind, it is important to support people if they're using Scratch. Some people will just pick it up on their own without much support. Others certainly need support. We're not arguing that everyone's going to learn to do everything on their own. The project-based approach doesn't mean you do everything on your own. We want to have support from peers, from mentors, from the others in our life who are helping in doing this.

In fact, I think a lot of times the people who have been least successful academically is because they haven't resonated with the way traditional schools work of having you learn lots of disconnected pieces of knowledge. I think if we want to reach a much wider of range, it's especially important to take a project-based approach where people work on things that are meaningful to them, and they see a good reason for why they're learning these things.

One problem with a lot of different academic activities is people present with one way of doing things, and that works for some, but not for others. In our design of Scratch and other technologies, we put a lot of focus on wide walls. How can we make sure that there are many different ways of using the technology because we know different kids have many different interests, so we want to make sure to connect with the interests of all different kids, so they all can engage in the important concepts and ideas while working activities that they really care about. That's not always easy to do. I'm not claiming that this is an easy path to take, but I think it's the right path to take, and we should put our focus to make sure that it works this way.

It's a dilemma that has been around for a long time. The great philosopher and educator John Dewey who sort of created the progressive education movement, he talked about his ideas being simple, but not easy. He could express it, but it was not easy to implement. I think it's the same thing with us that I think this approach we're taking is really important to make sure a wide range of kids connects with these ideas in ways that are meaningful to them. It's important to note that we have to work hard to set up the right type of environments to support those kids as they're learning.

I’m curious about another project that your lab does, a free online course called Learning Creative Learning, where you teach your approach to education to the world. Is that still going?

We're going to run the class again starting next month, in October, and use readings from the book Lifelong Kindergarten as some of the core materials for the class. Hopefully, a lot of the people who are reading this or listening to this will find it interesting to come and participate. We started the online class for the first time a few years ago when MOOCs were becoming population. We weren't very satisfied with what we saw in the early MOOCs. It felt to us a lot of the early MOOCs were just about delivering information and delivering instruction. Putting videos online for people to watch. There's some value to that, but we thought that that didn't capture the essence of what we thought rich learning should be about.

We called the course Learning Creative Learning because our goal was to have adults who were interested in creative learning to learn more about creative learning and to share their ideas with one another. We ran the class, and we're excited about the way that people came together from around the world and shared ideas with one another. Although we started as a class, as this online course, what was most exciting to us is it became a community where people were connecting with other people, sharing ideas, sharing projects, sharing resources with one another. That's our goal. It's not just a course, but an ongoing learning community.

What's the next big project you're working on?

Right now I'm really motivated to see how can we build upon the Scratch platform to reach even more kids and provide even a wider range of experiences and to make sure that it gets used in the ways that we had hoped, that it remains aligned with our values. We don't want Scratch to be a standalone environment where kids are just sharing on the Scratch website. We want to make it easy to connect Scratch to things in the world, to connect Scratch to other online services, web services.

Here's an example of something we're working on. A web service like Spotify where you can get different ... You go to Spotify. You can get different songs. Well from your Scratch project, you should be able to have programmatically ask somebody what's your favorite musician and then it should be able to go Spotify pulling music from that musician. If somebody's making a weather map in Scratch, right now with Scratch I can make a weather map, and I could code in temperatures in different parts of the world, but it wouldn't stay up to date. Scratch will be able to connect to online databases and pull in data in a real-time way.

If I want to use Scratch to control things in the world, different robotic instructions, or being able to build an artistic sculptures that have different sensors and motors and lights, I should be able to control that with Scratch. It becomes the way as we use traditional language in many different ways. We use language to write a shopping list, a grocery list, but also to write a poem or a birthday card for a friend. We use regular language in so many different ways.

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