Blindfolded, the child sat at a table before a set of toy bricks and another set of cubes. The child was asked to pick them up and sort them, putting bricks on one side and cubes on the other. It’s a simple but useful task for a 3-year-old, one of many object-based exercises that Maria Montessori, the 20th-century Italian physician and educator, used to develop an “education of the senses” that would help children integrate their own experience of the world. Montessori noted that children “are very proud of seeing without their eyes, holding out their hands and crying ‘I can see with my hands.’”
Montessori describes other exercises that encourage children to explore the sense of touch: setting out metal containers of water heated at six degree intervals; tablets made of three different woods that differ in weight by six grams; other tablets that have alternating strips of smooth paper and sandpaper. Children were asked to recognize the differences and place the objects in some order. It is rudimentary hands-on learning to engage the senses.
It reminds me of a felting activity I saw at a Mini Maker Faire. Children would dip sheep’s wool into a pan of soapy water and then pull it out to shape it. As I watched, they wanted to play in the sudsy waters, splashing, creating bubbles, and causing the water to rock from one side to the next. The experience was messy and fun, and I wondered if this kind of play was new to them. Did they not do this at home?
I have said, somewhat jokingly, that young kids today seem to have “tactile deficit syndrome,” and I get nods from people. Today’s toddlers are growing up with the touchscreen interface and its look and feel. While a touchscreen responds to touch, it provides almost no tactile feedback. The iPad is more like a remote control, and children using it sense the world with eyes and ears alone, much like TV.
Montessori believed that this education of the senses was important for the child’s ongoing development. “To teach a child whose senses have been educated is quite a different thing,” she wrote. “Any object presented, any idea given, any invitation to observe, is greeted with interest, because the child is already sensitive to such tiny differences as those which occur between the forms of leaves, the colours of flowers, or the bodies of insects.” One of the hallmarks of the method is to structure the environment and teaching so that children become independent, self-directed learners. It leads to agency, not apathy.
This philosophy of education later became known as “constructivist.” Learning is active — we don’t receive knowledge, we must construct the world to understand it, as with building blocks. In the words of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, “to invent is to learn.” At MIT in the 1980s, Seymour Papert, who believed that computer technology was a tool for children to begin teaching themselves, developed the idea of “constructionism.” Papert argued that children construct knowledge best when they are constructing something real. One of Papert’s students was Mitch Resnick, who developed the Lifelong Kindergarten program at MIT Media Lab to explore the role of technology in learning. Resnick developed the Computer Clubhouse in the 1990s and, more recently, the Scratch programming environment for children.
In a paper, Resnick asks the Sesame Street question: Which of these things is not like the other — computer, television, or finger painting? He believes the nonobvious answer is television. “Until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television,” he writes, “computers will not live up to their full potential.” Neither will our children.
Jay Silver, a student of Resnick’s at MIT, followed the strands of constructivism and constructionism while at the Media Lab. Silver’s unfinished doctoral thesis is titled “World as Construction Kit.”
While working on his thesis, his Makey Makey project took off — big time. Silver and co-inventor Eric Rosenbaum raised more than $500,000 on Kickstarter in 2012, and Makey Makey began spreading as an entry-level system for young makers. At a recent teacher’s conference, I saw educators demonstrating how to use it in the classroom. In June, Silver was invited to bring Makey Makey to the White House Maker Faire. He showed up in his usual colorful T-shirt and baggy shorts.
Makey Makey changes the interface for computing to almost anything you want, and it is a game changer. Children and adults can interact with computers in new, creative ways. At MakerCon, where Silver spoke, a computer snapped our photo at the moment that we high-fived each other. While one hand touched a wire, our other hands completed a circuit when they slapped, tripping the shutter. With Makey Makey, you don’t have to use a keyboard. You can slap hands. To play a piano on your computer, you can tap the skin of a banana. You can even do it blindfolded.
That you can create a banana piano with Makey Makey is a seemingly silly thing — but it is also surprisingly important. Silver calls it an “invention kit,” a new kind of toy or game for “the simultaneous combination of exploration and creative action that leads to a new way of seeing the world.” The banana piano opens up unexplored possibilities for interactions between computers and humans that have a touch and feel. It demonstrates that “computers can also be used as a ‘material’ for making things,” as Resnick wrote. The material world can be organized to interact creatively with computers. It’s what the touchscreen-fixated generation needs — preparing them to see with their mind’s eye.