“But the overall inertia and immune system of “education” is very strong, and if we were to disappear tomorrow, I’m not sure anything would be different than it would have been 100 years from now.” – Alec Resnick, USA
As both an educator and an education technology entrepreneur, Alec Resnick has a strong sense of the potential for technology in classrooms, but he’s equally wary about the appropriation of that technology simply to do old things in a slightly new way.
Resnick is one of the creative minds behind sprout & co., an organization whose stated mission is “to make science a cultural activity.” Founded in 2009 by Resnick, Michael Nagle and Shaunalynn Duffy — all colleagues at MIT — sprout & co. was created as a community education and research organization meant to support community-driven learning, teaching and investigation of science.
After several iterations to determine the best model for this innovative venture, the organization is now focused on developing programs to prototype ideas for hardware, software and media which support scientific investigation. Their philosophy is eloquently stated on the sprout & co. website: “Skepticism, comfort with uncertainty, facility with debugging our own mental models: these are the tools of the citizen, scientist, and learner. We believe this means the futures of scientific inquiry and learning are deeply intertwined, and we think technology offers unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine & renew people’s relationship to science.”
Offering a wide range of workshops, open office hours, and weekly project nights, sprout & co. has become an important educational resource to its community. So much so that, in 2012, the group was approached by a group of parents to help start an Innovation High School. That school – the Somerville STEAM Academy (SSA) is now being planned for a fall 2015 opening as a vocational lab school emphasizing computational immersion and targeting struggling students with a project-based learning curriculum.
Fundamental to both sprout & co. and the planned STEAM school is Resnick’s philosophy on education reform. “We need to loosen various institutions’ channel monopoly on access to young people (especially those who have struggled in traditional environments),” he tells us, “and seriously pursue policies which are meant to invent new models (with all the messiness that entails), not simply implement old models, better.”
Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Alec Resnick.
What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?
What drew me to education? The intellectual project of re-inventing the research university, resolving the tension between “teaching (and learning)” and “research” through the invention and application of new tools to think with that leverage computation to open up traditionally academic subjects to more vocational and artistic modes, thereby enabling novel, community-driven models of learning and research. It seemed to me that most efforts had been focused on improving our existing models rather than inventing new ones. [Education] is the largest lever we have accessible to us.
Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?
My English teacher, Mrs. Long, in high school, had the wisdom to lean into all my obsessions and interests, regardless of the curriculum, treating me like a peer. She loaded me up with books outside of the class, indulged my passion for words despite the way they made my papers unreadable, and more than anything, left me with a sense of learning being a lifelong, intellectual project in which I could participate. This all sounds trite—the stuff of commencement speeches—but I cannot overstate how formative the relationship was, far and above the curricula or books she shared.
Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education. What has changed as a result of your work?
Nothing yet. I mean, we’ve run programs with hundreds of kids in the Greater Boston area, and I think we’ve had a remarkable and positive impact on their lives and to a lesser extent, the operation of their schools. But the overall inertia and immune system of “education” is very strong, and if we were to disappear tomorrow, I’m not sure anything would be different than it would have been 100 years from now.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I’ll quote Papert:“In many schools today, the phrase ‘computer-aided instruction’ means making the computer teach the child. One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.” At their best, our programs do this.
In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?
Education? They’re distracting people from structural issues with the design of school and curricula by introducing an unfortunate technocentrism. Our work? They’ve enabled a totally novel class of computationally driven, hands-on experiences and experimentation focused on modeling and representation.
In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?
The expansion of “education” to include many efforts, stakeholders, and approaches that exist outside of “school”—not just in the sense of “afterschool” or “informal learning,” but in an institutional sense.
Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?
All the skills I’m passionate about were valuable in all the other centuries, too.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Initially I considered snarkier answers like, “An adult who cares and intervenes in their lives regularly to expose them to a world full of interesting phenomenon.” But more to your point: A [laptop or tablet][DT1] , preloaded with Scratch, LOGO, XCode, and a carefully curated set of textbooks and videos like Turtle Geometry (and maybe a collection of texts intended to radicalize a bit, like Lies My Teacher Told Me or John Holt’s How Children Fail). Why? Because I think that powerful tools without an agenda that enable authentically interesting work are more valuable than most realize. To quote Ivan Illich,
“People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them.”
What is your region doing well currently to support education?
My favorite initiative of late is Massachussetts’ Innovation School legislation; its focus on aggressively seeding and supporting sandboxes where fundamentally new models can be designed is awfully exciting.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Resisting the variety of organizational and cultural forces which push you to do things to students, or maybe for them, but very rarely with them. This can look like anything from putting “the curriculum” ahead of real depth, uncomfortable conversations with parents about the [ir]relevance of the quadratic equation, liability policies which prohibit physical contact with students, etc.
How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Guard and expand your autonomy jealously and aggressively. Advocate for policies which encourage planting many seeds and trying out many approaches to see what works, rather than attempting to plan for or optimize The One Way. Leverage parents’ actual interests and concerns, rather than trying to satisfy bureaucratic incentives. Start a school. Start a not-school. Take a Hippocratic Oath. Read Mindstorms and take it seriously.
How have you incorporated mobile devices/apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements?
Our programs’ focus on computation, modeling, and representation means apps (and programming tools, broadly) figure prominently into participants’ experiences. The capacity for these tools to offer hands-on, constructionist approaches to traditionally academic subjects is incredible; however, overall I’d have to say that the technocentrism/technoutopianism in the ed tech community really narrows the conversation to the extent that it limits discussions of technology to, “How can technology help us do what we’ve always done, better?” instead of, “What are the new activities and approaches technology enables?”
Alec Resnick, Director, sprout & co. and Co-founder, Somerville STEAM Academy
- Birthplace: Jerusalem, Israel
- Current residence: Somerville, Massachusetts
- Education: I’m for it.
- Website I check every day: None
- Person who inspires me most: Seymour Papert
- Favorite childhood memory: Breaking into a machine shop and learning to use a lathe.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): NYC, work.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? The Director of Product at Facebook complained about the banality of digital media. What other response can you have to such a ridonkulous irony?
- Favorite book: Mindstorms
- Favorite music: Loud
- What is the best advice you have ever received? Just keep swimming.
- Your favorite quote or motto: “People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them. Their punishment consists in being deprived of what I shall call ‘conviviality.’ They are degraded to the status of mere consumers.” – Ivan Illich