MAS.714J | Fall 2009 | Graduate

Technologies for Creative Learning


Reading responses for Week #5: Tangible Learning

Reflection and Questions

Posted by JC, PC, and ZH

In 1980, Seymour Papert’s explored the possibilities that technologies - specifically computers - had in the educational field in his book Mindstorms. Recent technological advantages called for an update on his text. In this paper, Michael Eisenberg adapts several concepts from Mindstorms to the current technological panorama.

Manipulation is the key word to understand this evolution; whereas Papert imagined a logical space inside the computer where children could learn, new technologies enable educators to turn these learning spaces into reality. Physical objects come natural to children for they are used to playing and exploring with them. Nowadays, technology can be embedded in physical objects to bring Papert’s world into a more familiar environment for children. Now it is in the educators hands to surround children with immersive learning experiences by creating real mathlands; from Mindstorms to Mindstuff.

For this blog discussion:

  • Recall a topic of study from your school years.
  • Imagine a tangible “thing” that could contribute to learning the field of study chosen. This “thing” can exist today or be fantasy.
  • Briefly describe your tangible “thing” and provide a visual (post a link to a drawing, image, or other visual).
  • Note that tangible “thing” means something different to each of us. We left this open to interpretation in order to give you freedom to draw from your experiences.

On a side note, we are curious if you were inspired by the paper to dream up your own mathland based on your interests and passions. We would love to hear what your mathlands would look like. As a side topic, feel free to post descriptions of your mathlands.

Student Reading Responses

Posted by JC

On of my favorite subjects growing up (and still is), is art. I have been drawing and sculpting for as long as I can remember. I find that I can create characters I imagine easier using my hands than using a computer; I grew up using clay and drawing material. I continued to use clay throughout my school years and into college; the sculptures just got more elaborate and detailed. I found myself wanting to create digital versions of the sculptures so that I could animate the characters. This isn’t exactly easy to do.

So my tangible “thing” would be clay that I could sculpt; the clay would somehow be embedded with micro sensors that would map the surface of the sculpture. This information could then be fed into a CAD or animation program. Here is a link to a paper that talks about implementing the digital clay idea:

Posted by DG

With 3D scanning you wouldn’t necessarily need the sensors. Additionally by continually sculpting/manipulation the object and saving snapshots of its state it would allow for much more approachable claymation. Instead of having to manipulate everything in the scene, the animator could animate each component separately and then mix them digitally. This resulting cross of claymation and digital animation would be quite interesting - the results would most likely look like either of them and new form would emerge. For example we don’t often see Gumby like claymation techniques in PIXAR films, but the limited behavior (unable to loop animations) of clay would not be constraint on this new form.

Posted by JC

Thanks for the response on this. I always enjoy hearing your input. 3D scanning is definitely a method to input; theoretically the potential embedded sensors may change the workflow such that the creation process runs smoother. The creator doesn’t have to stop for any significant amount of time to scan. Scanning certainly is a way to do this today. I would be interested in seeing the mix of clay and digital as well.

Posted by SK

This paper really resonated with me as it relates directly to work I have been exploring for the past few months.

Some time last February I dreamt up an idea for a physical classroom that would be able to be configured, built, and rebuilt by the students who use it. The idea was to create an architectural-scale construction kit that would give students a greater understanding of how the environment around them is formed. I aimed to embed ideas from math, physics, and design into the design of structure itself.

A few collaborators and I worked with a group of local high school students and their teacher to gather ideas for what this classroom should contain. We came up with this design by the start of the summer:

  • Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom. “How Buildings Teach.” (PDF - 5.5MB)

Working with some of these high school students, we built a full-scale prototype of a section of the classroom over the summer. In the process, we worked with the students to help them develop research projects that could result in creations which could become part of the classroom. Eisenberg enumerated a list of possible projects that seemed eerily similar to the sorts of things we were working on, including exploring symmetry groups and tessellations to decorate our triangular floor tiles or discussing the path of the sun during different seasons and its effects on light and heat in our structure.

We didn’t focus specifically on creating a “mathland” in the end, but wanted to create more of a general literal and figurative framework where students could create, test, and implement their own objects to think with that could become part of the building itself. What we made wasn’t explicitly technological, but its design was heavily aided by computer tools and some of the ideas Eisenberg suggests for creation using computerized fabrication tools or new materials could be incorporated.

To look at this project in another way, its existence has become a tangible “thing” for me to use to think about design and education. I don’t know how I would have reacted to it as a high school student myself, but I like to think it would have encouraged me to think about design, architecture, my community, and the role of building things in the world at a time when I had few outlets (and certainly no large-scale physical outlets) for thinking about such things.

Posted by VC

This is really cool, though I imagine if I were a high schooler, I wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about spending a lot of time building an impermanent prototype.

It does remind me, however, of a project my friend at RISD undertook during a class on design for the community. She and her class were asked to design a prototype for playground at a charter elementary school in Rhode Island, which involved several trips to the school and working with the kids (a funny notion if you knew my friend-she’s not exactly a kid person). At the end of the semester, she got really upset that they were getting kids excited about a playground they were never going to build.

So my idea is to have high school kids design a learning-friendly playground for a local elementary school (with the help of someone with design/engineering experience). These high school students would develop meta cognitive skills about how and what children should learn and also learn responsibility, as they’d be required to build playgrounds for children with whom they’d develop relationships. It would also require these high school students to think critically about math, engineering, safety and design. The fact that this structure could be real, permanent and for children in their community would heighten students’ sense of responsibility and seriousness about the project. This is obviously a Utopian vision that would require several years of planning and research, but I think it’d be a good character-building activity for the high school students to learn to be serious and responsible.

Posted by AL

My “object-to-think-with”, “Sandy Beach” on the island of O’ahu (Hawaii), is not so much of a tangible object, and is perhaps more in line with the full immersion environment example, like “Mathland”. But it really informed a lot of my early learning. The “objects” within this setting might be the coral reef, tidepools, wet sand, and waves. My topics of study could be biology, physics, “physical education”, or art.

I grew up down the street from this beach and my family spent a great deal of time there. This particular beach has one of the strongest currents on the island of O’ahu; but we still played on the shore, swam in the shallows, explored the life in the tidepools, and snorkeled (on very calm days). I began surfing at eleven and was able to surf this break because I grew up swimming there: I knew where the various reef heads were, where the rip tide pulled, and who the “veterans” were. My best friend and I were the only females who surfed that break, and among only a small handful of kid surfers. I understood to some degree the shape and temperament of the waves and what I didn’t know I quickly learned through trial and error (ouch!). This informed my study of physics when we studied certain concepts like mass, inertia, velocity and wavelengths. I actually think helped me develop a strong sense of body awareness in relation to balance and intuition. By understanding the strengths and limits of my physical abilities, I was able to use my body as equipment to catch waves while body-surfing. This aided my other academic interests such as the various sports I practiced as well as the arts. The surfers were always good at wheel throwing and glass blowing, and I have a hypothesis as to why that was.

I think I fell in love with waves in the way that Seymour Papert fell in love with gears. He was able to use his understanding of them to pursue further self-directed investigations. I was able to expand my fascinations and “skills” in many ways as well.

I would say that I developed a different branch of skills than those found only in the academic classes in my “Beachland” experiences such as: empathy (there were several endangered species that shared the beach with us and that we were conscious of protecting including Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles), courage (there were often ambulances visiting the beach!), social skills (carefully navigating the unspoken rules of the lineup), and creativity (we shaped our own boards and tried out new ways of surfing all the time).

I really appreciate Eisenberg’s comment that children like to learn with “stuff,” tangible objects, and that the coupling of objects and new media technology could lead to greater creative learning potential. Something that was really informative in my learning through the beach was the fact that I was learning from life. It would be very interesting to pursue educational tools where computation is paired with objects in nature.

Posted by SK

While the original prompt identified “manipulation” as the point of evolution from Papert to Eisenberg, I read it much more as a matter of “immersion.” And while Eisenberg seemed to be interested in creating a learning world inside a child’s room, I think your experience of learning from the environment at the beach was much more immersive and that’s why you strongly identify with it. You weren’t manipulating the beach itself, though you speak of the ways in which you manipulated your own body as being some of the most valuable lessons.

How would the objects of the beach contributed to your learning if they were brought into a completely different place, such as a classroom at your school? Even if this were possible, I imagine that the different surroundings would have affected how you felt about learning from these objects. One of the things that interests me is how we can design technological learning tools that allow students to explore and learn from the real environments they might come into contact with through their lives.

Posted by JC

It is intriguing to read your description of a place you are obviously very connected to. I would agree with SK that you experience certainly is immersive in the way you were like an object in the environment; and reacted to you. It would be tough to reproduce this experience within a man-made structure today.

Posted by DG

There were two activities that I really enjoyed as a child that I think could be enhanced by technology.

  1. I enjoyed building sand castles at low tide and watching them be destroyed as the tide came in. I would construct them in such a way to try and withstand the tide as much as possible and move the water around in interesting ways. When not at the ocean, we would carve channels into a hill and then use the a garden hose to pump water through the system - it would move homemade waterwheels, plastic green army men, legos, and whatever other materials we had available to us. Technology could help this by allowing building simple sensors and pumps that I could have used. 


  2. I also enjoyed playing strategy board games with my brothers and our neighbors. We would play risk, axis and allies, diplomacy, etc. After multiple iterations playing these games are strategies would slowly improve as we relied on our recollection of the prior games and strategies employed by each of us. We could have greatly improved our strategies if there was technology available that capture the state of the board at each turn, so that we could have done advanced analysis instead of relying on memory. As our strategies progressed would discover dominant strategies that seemed to always work - developing large quantities of soldiers and dumping them at the Russian border; which then required the opposing player to take more chances and try to outthink these strategies. I recall an amazing game where Germany took over Canada and swarmed down into the US. If we could have had detailed data about troop movement and quantities we could have increased our level of play significantly. This technology could have been as simple as rfid readers in the board with each piece designated with a unique ID, and a few buttons to designate the players turns, technology available etc. We’d also be able to characterize our playing styles as safe, risky, collaborative.

Digital boardgames:

Posted by FG

In response to the little assignment, these are some of the pictures that captured my imagination as a child, and in fact as a teenager too, and they still do now:

World champion figure skater Denise Biellmann performing a spin she invented and that bears her name:

  • [Image is no longer available.]

Before I thought of journalism [later in high school] as a future profession, I was actually intent on becoming a ballet dancer. So I took ballet classes from 6 to 18 years old, in a performing arts schools in Belgium, as an extracurricular activity - but there were exams and public ones too.

As these pictures show, I was mesmerized by the sense if lightness and gravity-defying shapes that the body of these dancers and figure skaters could take [I loved figure skating too but never learned seriously because we lived too far from an ice ring.] So I strove to emulate those shapes with ballet classes flexibility exercises [splits, etc] at home and various diets.

I realize these performers’ bodies are not ‘objects’ in the usual meaning of the word, but for me, they were very real, and constantly in my head as I imagined new moves in my head when listening to music. I was constantly visualizing them in my head, and again, I still do today whenever i hear music.

Having said this, the body has been considered and described as ‘an object’ by various groups: for example by advertisers for commercial purposes [causing an outcry from feminists and women’s rights movements], and other artists and the scholars who study them, establishing some of their observations in new philosophies and artistic discourses. So to some extent, the body can be seen as an ‘object’, even though such a view may seem reprehensible in the case of the sexist scenarios of the ‘women as objects’ commercial phenomenon. And after all, as infants/babies, our own feet, fingers, etc. are the first things we grab when we start moving and exploring our immediate environment.

To take this notion of the body as an ‘object’ a little further and into some futuristic yet possible avenues, one just has to look at the kind of research being done here at the Media Lab, with Pr. Iroshi Ishii’s Tangible Media group, in which students are developing wearable devices that build upon and extend the body’s capacities, one of the most active groups in his area. Pattie Maes’ is another. The sensor-embedded garments that allow for monitoring and sending out data on one’s heart rate or for long-distance massages are just some examples. These body-based devices can have many medical, social or even emotional applications in our everyday lives.

See one of Pr. Ishii’s students’, Cati Vaucelle’s research and her PhD thesis entitled “Grounding interfaces: shifting the body boundaries” for some great examples. The link here has a selection of her projects, most of them relating to the many imaginative uses we can make of our bodies in their new digital environment.

To conclude, I have to say that I recently decided to go back to ballet, albeit of course on a dilettante level, with classes here at the Cambridge Dance Complex. Returning to classical dance, complete with splits and pointe work after a nearly 20-year gap has proved an experience full of discoveries too! It turns out that not only I can still make all the moves I did as a young growing child and teenager [I’m now well into my 30s:)], but I have found that I am even better at some of them and more supple when it comes to splits and similar exercises. I believe it’s because I am working harder at them. But the idea that even at an older age one is capable of such physical feats as usually reserved for our younger years was a revelation to me. It feels a little like reversing the biological clock. In any case, this experience has allowed me to keep learning new things about myself and the body’s capabilities.

And on a more general note, it is clear that the body holds plenty of exciting educational opportunities for children and older learners if we can use it and connect it intelligently with the digital technologies all around us. Perhaps this is an avenue too that schools should look into, so that they don’t just offer computers to their students, but an ambient environment that they connect to and interact with directly, with touch-based screens, gesture-sensitive surfaces and objects, etc. See Pr. Ishii’s g-speak gesture-based interaction system for a great example.

Posted by SL

Ballet strikes a chord for me as well. It was the choreography paired with the music and the staging that I found as compelling as the performance aspects of the art form. To choreograph, I had to create a sequence of steps and movements, synchronized with music, while orchestrating the geometry of moving groups of bodies using two languages: the strict language of ballet (almost every movement and position has a French name) and the language of music (notes, score, key, tempo, phrase, etc.). Both languages had to be pressed into the service of a story line, whether literal, emotional or aesthetic. And the performance was the “test”, the proof of learning and knowledge integration. I’ve seen several technology projects that have attempted to have motion translated into digital images or music. The late Merce Cunningham tried using tracking sensors/tags and computer simulations to create animated digital dancers in the 1990’s. He also worked with the Media Lab on a project earlier this decade called Loops which tracked motion in space.

  • Wikipedia: Merce Cunningham
  • Kirn, Peter. Remembering Merce Cunningham, Digital Motion, and Digital Portraits. Create Digital Motion, July 27, 2009.

Joe Paradiso’s group, also at the Media Lab, developed a pair of sensing sneakers that when worn, would produce electronic music with each movement of the fott., called Expressive Footwear (1997-2000). Another one of his group’s projects tracked the motion of a body in space, called the Magic Carpet (1997-2002).

I would love to see us construct an incredibly rich environment in which all three of these approaches combined to allow someone to choreograph, animate and create new kinds of dance, music and digital spaces. Imagine a space where the back wall is a touch screen that allows you to digitally paint new scenes and backdrops, the floor is a sensing environment, and the character or dancer wears expressive shoes and/or sensors that track location and motion. Such an environment would allow the student to play with music, mathematics, motion, physics and geometry, as well as wrestle with cultural and aesthetic ideas. This would be a very interesting Mathland, expressive, educational and physical.

Posted by FG

When I hear music and imagine a little choreography in my head, I sometimes fantasize about another kind of digital enhancement to the performance than those you describe - although these sound very exciting too for the world of dance - namely, I wish that the bodies of the dancers could be replicated not just on screens and other surfaces, as they are already now in various applications such as video clips and dance club walls, but also physically, tangibly, in 3D and in the real world. So that’s nothing short of having a sort of digital airy or robot-like double representation of a human body. I imagine how this double of a dancer could interact with the ‘real life version’ of the performer in the real world, either on a stage or even beyond, and create a thousand new possibilities for the performing arts. It would also vastly expand the creative learning opportunities for arts students and learners of all ages. Students dancers could also see their exact moves and perhaps use their digital representations as teachers and coaches.

This may sound a little Utopian at this point, but research is being conducted in this sphere of trying to represent the human body in the real physical world. The research that Lass cited I believe is the first steps in this direction.

Daniel Vlasic’s work is also related - he works in CSAIL and MIT’s Gambit:

Such projects offer infinite possibilities for for the interactive visualization of objects and people [the latter as ‘bodies’ - in the meaning I gave to them in my post here above].

Ilya Baran from the MIT Graphics Groups is also, like Vlasic, very close to coming up with the vision I have of a real life representation of the human body and movement in space:

Posted by MN

I agree with your idea that there is a huge potential for learning in intelligent use of the body along with digital technologies. In my earlier posting, I picked my object-to-think-with as “people”. This goes along with your idea of the human body that associate with music, emotions, and the physical world.

Posted by FG

In response to this week’s theme and our readings, I have to say straight away that it is more the ideas and concepts behind objects rather than the objects themselves that really interest me. I am more curious and excited about the thinking that goes into their design and fabrication than about their ’life as objects’ later on, that is, the uses and applications that were found for them.

The educational use of these objects by children too I think is optimized if children and young learners have the opportunity to reflect on why an object is designed the way it is, how differently it could have been made, with what functions, etc. in short, think about the decision-making that goes on at the design level and understand what the technology is trying to get the child to do. In this way, you are teaching the child to be aware of the controls and influences he is being subjected to when using the object. That’s a great way to form a free, independent and critically-thinking spirit!

Information on the design of the objects could be embedded in their uses and applications and in the surrounding environment in which their use is taking place, so as to make it a seamless experience.

All this to say that ‘stuff’ is not enough, technology [objects] alone won’t do it, focusing on the physical does not exempt us from thinking in smart and critical ways about what it can do for us.

In view of this point of view and my observations, I also have to say that I am a little disappointed in the sub-title in Michael Eisenberg’s paper, “1. Introduction: Children, Materials, and Powerful Ideas.” I just wish the ideas weren’t listed last, after materials:)… as for me, they come first.

Posted by SL

I’m going to draw on a topic and object that I found later in life, as my school years are so far in the past that I can’t remember much about what I learned then. My topic is Astronomy, through the lens of celestial navigation. My object is the sextant.

  • Diagram of a sextant (JPG)

As background, in the late 1980’s I was fascinated with with the journals of Lewis & Clark. They led the team President Jefferson sent out West to explore and map the United States beyond the Mississippi River. In my late night readings of their journals I realized that mapping was a very inexact science in Jefferson’s days. Lewis and Clark were the first explorers to use celestial navigation tools on land (rather than at sea) for mapping, locating themselves and keeping track of the passage of time. In their journals they were constantly referring to the use of their sextants and artificial horizon, and I wanted to know more about the whys and wherefores of their mapping project. So I took a very old class offered at the Smithsonian Observatory on celestial navigation where I learned how to find myself in the world, using the sun, the stars, and a sextant.

The sextant is a beautiful piece of art and craft. It is typically made of brass, and cleverly engineered to accommodate fine precision in the measurement of time and space. No ship worth its salt (so to speak) would be caught without one-that is, before GPS systems came into being. By finding the horizon at sea and comparing the horizon with the position of the sun (and sometimes the North Star and other celestial objects) you could position yourself in the world, and plan your journey forward. From this I learned, in a visceral and physical way, an enormous amount about the motions of the planets -both intra- and inter- planetary motion- about algebra and geometry (even a little bit of calculus), about the seasons of the year, about time, about space, and lots more. It was wonderful.

My object-to-think-with is digitally enhanced sextant that would communicate (via IR most likely) with a planetary simulation on the computer. The computer could first present me with the real world. I could take my sightings using this enhanced sextant and map my coordinates in the simulation. After mastering my current location and the location of other people and places on earth, I could create galaxies and solar systems. Using an artificial horizon with my sextant, I could locate myself on a planet in a solar system that I created myself. We could augment the computer-sextant pairing with a set of physical spheres, representing the suns, moons and planets which are also digitally enhanced to send their position and characteristics to the computer model, and so manipulate the solar system model in real time-empowering us to learn about time, location, planetary motion, and soooo much more. I could play with the size, motion, speed and gravity of all the planets in my own solar system (and in my physical model) and learn about the physics and conceptual laws at play in a personal, physical way. Maybe I could construct my own solar system in the classroom out of paper mache, string, whatever materials available, complete with computational capabilities enabled by electronic components designed for this purpose that we could embed in my physical constructs. My solar system could be as large or as small as I was willing to make it.

For my “Mathland” I’d love to see a room for astronomy based around this digitally enhanced sextant, self-created solar system, computational models, mobile of planets, and some of the other historical instruments and tools astronomers used over time to track the planets and find themselves in the universe. There’s even a little history wrapped up in this package. I think I’d love that Mathland.

Posted by VC

I think it would be interesting to create a city simulation using a model city and dolls for a elementary or middle school civics class. These objects would be used to teach students about local governments and collective organizing. The way I envision it, each child is randomly assigned a role in the city (the mayor, garbage collector, mailman, superintendent, local journalist etc) so that governmental power is not a function of popularity. Each child would have to research what their doll’s job entails and present it to the class so that there is a general idea of what each person’s role in the city is. Perhaps the child would have to place their doll at their “workplace” at 9am, take them away during lunch, put them back after lunch, and bring them “home” at the end of the schoolday.

To make it interesting, the teacher would hand out cards to certain members of the class such that they could make certain events happen. For example, the teacher could give all the city utility workers a strike card so that no one could have electricity, and then the utility workers and the city officials would have to negotiate a new salary. Or the teacher could give the mayor a law card, so that everyone would have to change their behavior to stay legal. Every day of the unit, the teacher could assign a new type of event (scandal, new law, holiday) so that kids could better understand the different things they might read about in their local news.

The dolls might look like this little knitted link doll. I like that it’s cute, dressable, but not entirely human.

Posted by RC

When I was younger, I took piano lessons with a private teacher. She would come to my house once a week and listen to me play the pieces we were working on. She would then correct the areas that I played incorrectly and teach me how to play the next parts. A big problem for me was that I loved to procrastinate even at that young an age. Therefore I wouldn’t start to practice until a couple of days before my next lesson. By then I had already forgotten my teacher’s suggestions and also what the next part of the piece was supposed to sound like. I was also not great at sight reading, which meant it was hard to teach myself. I could translate the notes to the keys on the piano fine, but in terms of tempo, dynamics, and rhythm it was helpful to have a teacher.

With the new developments of electric pianos, I imagine a future where we can input a piece into an electric piano and the piano would not only play the piece for you, but help you learn them. As you press and release keys on the piano, it would visually display the notes and rests that you are playing and overlay these onto the actual sheet music. This can help you assess how precisely you are playing the piece.

Here’s an image of an electric grand piano that is sold today (JPG). Imagine the sheet music stand replaced with an lcd screen that displays the sheet music representing the notes you are currently playing

Posted by JP

I had so similar experience in learning piano when I was eight years old. I only could start to practice right before my piano teacher visited my house. It would be much easier for me to learn if I had the electric piano. On the contrary, I have totally opposite experience in learning cello when I became mid twenties. I loved the cello sound with vibration from the instrument body. I loved the moment when my body resonated with the cello body. Then one of neighbor student complained the loud sound; I needed to buy an electric cello to practice quietly. I could practice at night but I could not enjoy the moment of ‘MusicLand’ (compare to the ‘Mathland’ of Eisenberg). Accordingly the electric instrument was not helpful for my learning though its fancy shape. For me the Mathland resided in the resonant sound.

Posted by JP

One of the key concepts in Eisenberg’s Mindstuff is creative manipulation of objects that reminds me of an intern student when I was working for an architecture office a couple of years ago. There was computer software to draw plans from three-dimensional geometries with which people easily generate architectural drawings of complex-shaped building design. One day the intern used the same software to make physical models using a laser cutter. He sliced the geometry every four millimeters (about one thirty second inch) then he glued all the sliced sections and made a whole building. It was surprisingly a new idea and no one in the office ever tried before. I was curious how he could think of this innovative use from such a conventional tool and actually I thought of how children played innovatively from common material.

  • One example of kaoliang stalk construction (JPG 1) (JPG 2)

One thing I want to introduce is a colored corn (kaoliang) stalk. A kaoliang stalk is very cheap and local material from South Korea. It is a lightweight twig cut from kaoliang. It is easy to cut and to join with any toothpick or pin. Consequently it is popular educational material among elementary schools. It is used to teach, from general hand crafting, model making to basic concept of mathematics, physics and time. Children use the material crudely when they make a pinwheel and house-like toys. On the other hand children cut the stalk into modular chips and make molecule models and solar systems. I could also see how children creatively used the same material to make something from their own imagination. One of the examples is a painting using a same kind of kaoliang stalk. A student sliced, extremely thinly, colored kaoliang stalks and used them as if they were a paint brush.

It is not so difficult for me to imagine how this common material, kaoliang stick, is helpful for children to learn, from science to fine arts. I remembered that I did not clearly distinguish the real airplane and a toy plane when I was playing with one. I remembered that the airplane on my hand was really flying and as speedy as real one. I can guess that children are in real world when they playing with any toys. I agree with Eisenberg’s notion of “Mathland”, a physical setting in which tangible object bring children the “image of an entire culture, a lived-in world.” My question is, what the criteria are for educational tools to be a good physical setting. What kind of physical settings could bring more effective learning?

[It may be difficult to find more images and examples of kaoliang stalks since it is kind of a mixture of translated Korean and Chinese words. Try these Google image searches on Korean-language terms.]

Posted by JL

Hmm. What is a good physical setting? Well you can imagine a bad example of a non-effective learning environment: a white empty room with no windows. For me, I would image a colorful room with arts and crafts displayed in every nook and cranny. One wall is a gigantic white board filled with drawings from different students. A corner shows off last month’s designs of space houses that the students invented. There are bins full of tangible educational tools like LEGOs, kaoliang, wooden blocks, robot learning companions, and all sorts of fun interactive stuff! I guess the big dream is to create an atmosphere that generates creativity and supplies resources to help induce design, play, and fun.

Posted by FG

In response to the quote from Eisneberg that JP selected and his pertinent questions inspired by it, I would like to extend his enquiry to ask in relation to “the image of an entire culture” that an ideal educational environment should offer children by asking ‘which one?’ - that is, which or whose culture should that environment represent?

Here is the quote:

“I agree with Eisenberg’s notion of “Mathland”, a physical setting in which tangible object bring children the “image of an entire culture, a lived-in world.” My question is, what the criteria are for educational tools to be a good physical setting. What kind of physical settings could bring more effective learning?”

It is easy to see the potential for all sorts of cultural and social conflicts among children and learners from diverse family and academic backgrounds, most of them from our real world, being replicated in such a new technologically-enhanced environment, especially when just ‘one culture’ is being replicated and promoted ’entirely’, possibly eradicating others. The now familiar warning about who controls these environments, and eventually the technologies behind them, their design and uses, still applies in these educational contexts, and careful consideration should be given to what kind of philosophies and ideas we want to embed in them. This goes back to what I was was saying in my initial post here that the ideas behind the technologies matter as much - and for me, more - than the tools/objects themselves. Democratic representation of all participants in these new learning environments should be one of the guiding principles in my opinion.

Posted by AL

The way these kids are using the kaoliang stalk is very imaginative. It sounds like it is versatile enough to support many different imaginary purposes. I remember playing with the dead needles of the ironwood trees in Hawaii. We would gather them by the bunches and play with it for hours in different “make believe” scenarios. Perhaps a goal of educational technology might be in trying to mimic a material like this, as very basic and very versatile. Perhaps even one that could be ripped and re-fastened, perhaps embedded with visual capabilities, etc. I don’t think that these versatile natural materials should be copied, the structures seem irreplicable, but I think they can learn from their qualities. To answer your question about settings, I think that it should almost learn from a location with possibilities of creativity as endless as in a forest, or living seashore.

Posted by JL

In middle school, I remember dreading Fridays because of Ms. Spencer’s weekly vocabulary tests. We always had at least 50 words and their definitions to memorize. Usually, I would forget a majority of what I “learned” the next day. Brute force memorization never worked with me. However, whenever I read a word in context of something that I really enjoyed i.e. a good book, then I would understand its meaning forever.

A fun activity to learn vocabulary words could be to create a story that takes the word into context. Scratch could be a useful tool to create a story that incorporates a SAT word. Every student in the class could create a story around a word and then present it to their fellow classmates.

I created an example in Scratch.

My vision of Mathland is an amusement park full of different kiosks and stations with fun math problems to be solved. Maybe before someone can ride a rollercoaster, the operator can explain that he has a problem with the slope of the track. He does not know the optimal slope the first downward fall should be in order to achieve maximum fun (and safety). When you buy tickets at the counter, the cashier needs help figuring out how many tickets your $5 bill can get. The Western Shooting game requires the participant to calculate the angle of the gun given the velocity of the pellet and distance to the target. With the correct input, you win a prize! At the redemption center, you have to count up your tickets and do the math to figure out how many prizes you can buy.

Posted by VC

I never took etymology class in high school, but we used the etymology room to run our literary magazine. They say that visuals help us remember words, so the teacher made all the etymology classes make posters of different SAT words and put them up around the room. There was one really good poster of a crying duck with the word “lugubrious” written under it. And now I’ll never forget that word!

Which is to say, I think using Scratch is a great way to get kids to learn their SAT vocabulary as long as it’s in a setting where the vocab words could be split up. Sure beats coloring inside the lines!

Posted by ZH

I think the idea of this paper is really interesting. To my personal experience, actually these days, one of the most popular topics in architecture design is about " digital vs analog". In the past hundreds of years, architects used to use pens to draw sections and plans, use paper or wood to make physical models and use verbal words to present them. Once computation came into design field, those things totally changed: architects make drawings on computer, make digital models on computer and make animation or other types of virtual presentation. At MIT, architects even use scripts to generate the form.

However, does that mean digital design tool is better than the analog one? In the architecture school in Columbia U, all the stuff created by students are digital. actually the only thing a architecture student need there is just a computer. However, there are still a lot of school force students to make drawings by hand and make physical models instead of digital ones. the advantage of hand-sketch is that it is really free to draw. I mean it is very easier for an architect to draw what they think. Actually the fact is that you make drawing and think happens at the same time: the lines you drew influence your idea and also your think will determines your drawings too. so this interaction happens very frequently. In addition, physical models is very critical for people to imagine the space. it is very different from the digital ones.

Admittedly, using computer is very convenient to make modifications. So how to build the bridge between these two becomes very important. one way of what a lot of architects are doing now is embrace the technology of digital fabrication. For example, 3D printer- it can automatically convert your digital model to a physical one.

Laser cutter or CNC are also very strong digital fabrication tools.

But this is more about like the presentation issue. As a tool, what i image is that, when we are building a rough physical model or sketch, the computer can generate a digital model at the same time by using some sensor to record the changing of the geometry. that will definitely help architects to make designs.

In addition, once we have the digital model, we can explore more issues like day lighting simulation.

Posted by DK

I particularly enjoyed this week’s reading as Eisenberg reminds us of the importance of customization of objects we can learn from in order to facilitate some sort of an emotional attachment. I would maybe even go a little further and argue that thinking through objects or artifacts that a child created with an understanding of first principles is probably achieving both - namely customization and procedural thinking.

I think it is relatively easy to come up with toys, kits or systems that fall into the Microcosm-Category, in terms of tightly constraint systems, but the more open things like the paper band or weaving ribbon are harder to “invent”. As much as I appreciate the desire to teach science or computation I personally fear that there is a danger of reducing problems and as a consequence the world to combinatorial systems. I think generality is a key aspect here as it can lead to more flexibility and allows for surprises and gives more room for interpretation. Luckily children have the ability to see anything in any context and will have no problem seeing a constraint toy as something its designer would have never conceived of. Nevertheless do I think that generality is important to consider.

The idea to create polyhedral from paper bands is more general and can therefore facilitate more expressiveness if compared to the molecular building kit for instance. The problem however is that a smart molecule block could tell a computer where it is in relation to its neighbors and we can make a program that will supply the semantics that can facilitate learning. So the generality of the polyhedral does not allow us to teach something very specific, but allows a child to see whatever it wants in the sculptural things it is making. I think we need to consider creativity as expression and add behavior into materials that allow for these kinds of activities.

The materials that others have mentioned already could be clay that knows what shape it has; paper that knows where it is folded and what it can fold into; Zoometools that have variable joints and telescoping struts. In other words I am looking for an expansion of logic kits to something that can facilitate something like the Zoometool constraints as an example, but allow for more possibilities due to its generality.

Posted by FG

A few more comments on our readings and thoughts on my own ‘Mathland’:

Despite its obvious appeal and the ideal scenario of full immersion it evokes, I do not agree with Papert’s theory that ’living in France’ will naturally lead to the natural learning of French. One only has to look at the number of long-term immigrants who live there, and in the rest of Europe, some for decades, without ever speaking and showing a desire to learn the language. There are plenty of verbal and written translating services that allow non French-speaking immigrants to lead a full life in France in their own language, just as for Russians here in Boston/Mass and other states. This is often the cause of friction between the parents of children from immigrating countries such as Turkey and Morocco and the teachers of their children when there are evaluation sessions in schools, as the parents only speak their own mother tongue. Translators are being provided for them by the schools.

And even more simply: even though I lived for 18 years in Belgium where Dutch is an official language and had classes in Dutch/Flemish throughout my primary and high school years, I was never able to speak it - I just have some casual understanding of oral and written Dutch - for the simple reason that I was never really interested in that language.

All this to say that unless there is a free will to learn a language - or anything else for that matter - the tools and their contexts/environments themselves won’t do much.

To put it briefly, my own ‘Mathland’ would show some balance in the subjects or fields that children could learn. Much has been made by our authors so far on learning mathematical skills, with an understanding that they are especially useful to learn new technologies and computer science. But I would want to have other fields, such as the arts and languages and literatures and other more abstract skills such as logic and thinking, also represented in this new ambient learning environment. I wouldn’t want to see it being ‘overtaken’ by one type of skills or areas of study.

To follow up on this idea, I would like to conclude by saying that children’s mental and physical living space is for now free for the taking. Anyone with great ideas on how to expand it so as to integrate new methods and tools can move in and take it, for the simple reason that as our educational system shows, no one system has really made much progress in this sphere. We and our authors have agreed that most educational and teaching systems are still backward and haven’t explored and developed the full learning opportunities that children could enjoy.

For now, the field of education [technologists, educators, we!, and such academics as we are reading] has made the first steps in this direction. But what if parents decided to also ’take over’ children’s free time and attention and embed discipline and other rules in their kids’ ambient environment too? Or if children’s friends did - what if the hundreds of friends they have in online social networks decided to also claim children’s living spaces to embed in them their news and updates about their activities, etc.

The way children spend their time, use their daily environment and physical space, how they think about all these things are in my opinion still very free, virgin territory. Anyone with great ideas for using them for the child’s benefit should jump in!

Posted by MN

Contrary to Papert’s Mindstorms and Eisenberg’s Mindstuff and the Learning Sciences, my tangible learning happens most when looking at pattern in the natural world. It was mostly “people” around me- personalities and relationships- that triggered learning, contributed to relating certain concepts to personal experiences that helped internalize and retain knowledge.

In addition, my tangible “stuff” that came close to Papert’s gears was violin. Having been a violinist all my life, music also served as the “stuff” that helped me understand the connections among the mind, body and emotions. The discovery of these relationships and the rich possibilities for application in many other disciplines were highly present ongoing process while I was trained in music. In 2006, seven of my classmates from Juilliard founded a summer program to teach young musicians, expanding upon this idea of music as a powerful tool to form the basis for deep learning.

Posted by PC

I just wanted to add a couple of examples I came across during the week:

  1. SNIFF - It’s a toy dog that allows children to explore as the toy itself is able to read markers. I believe that the video is self explanatory:
  2. Crayon Physics. There is a free demo so I really recommend you try it.

Hope you like it!

Posted by ZH

Look at this project by the Media Lab:

Course Info

Learning Resource Types
assignment_turned_in Problem Sets with Solutions
group_work Projects with Examples
assignment_turned_in Activity Assignments with Examples