Knowledge Machines are here; How will you use them?

There was a time when school was about learning the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Sounds like the beginning of a long ago time story, doesn’t it?

After reading this 1993 article from Wired, I realized that Papert’s ‘Knowledge Machines’ are, in fact, here.

Papert’s idea that we need to teach with a different focus may be NOW. To help children continue in their natural curiosity as it relates to all things school, teachers need to stop acting like we are cramming things into a box, and let our kids grab the knowledge that we’ve guided them to – and build their own knowledge container (which may not be boxed-shaped at all!)

Papert relates his search for knowledge: a set of encyclopaedia, journals, and other texts. He then theorizes about a ‘knowledge machine’ that would convey knowledge without the ability to read.

Think about that a moment. Without. The. Ability. To. Read.
Papert recognized a future that would place texts on a computer that would be able to be read aloud by the computer (um, can anybody say text to speech apps). Papert envisioned visual displays to explain and drive learning. How many of you know toddlers who can use computers better than many adults? My grandson knew how to decode his games without the embedded storylines. When he began to be interested in beating the games, his reading ability increased exponentially!

Consider the resources that allow teachers to set algebraic properties in motion: think YouTube, Vimeo, Geogebra, and Desmos, to name just a few technological ways to explore mathematics.

There are wonderful 3D images online that create Notice/Wonder moments to share with our classes. These resources allow spatial learning that would not have been able to be shared in classrooms even a dozen years ago!

 We must begin teaching concepts differently. Literacy does not just mean deciphering collections of letters on a page. Knowledge is not volumes of documents anymore. Yes, children still need to learn to read. But they also need to continue to play – with images, ideas, processes. We take these methods of learning away from them the minute we put them in desks, in schools, and make them learn to read before we let them begin to learn! Knowledge is no longer only in text form.

 We stop their learning until they can read.

I enrolled my daughter, at three years old, in a Montessori daycare. Only it wasn’t a daycare, it was a school. This school had shelves of things to play with. Blocks, of course, and cups and pans, all sorts of manipulative items for comparison and discovery. There were rugs and child-sized footstools for perching. My daughter loved it there. She became aware of words like bigger and smaller, more and less, tall and short; concepts were real things to her, and the more she learned, the more she explored. Her language grew. She loved learning!
In first grade, she entered the local school system.
By third grade, she was suffering. At the end of a terrible fourth grade year, the school counselor asked if I’d be willing to put her in a drop-out prevention class. That ‘class’ meant two teachers for about 12 children, a computer for every child, and a classroom that felt very similar to that Montessori room: bright, shape-filled stations, hands-on activities, and project-based learning. It was poster projects, and kids using the computer for research, and making connections by discovery. It was conversations with the other children and with the teachers. It was ‘why’ and ‘how do you know’ questioning. My daughter began to enjoy school again.

She decided she wanted to become a teacher that year.

Her reading? It didn’t really pick up until after her experiences in that fifth grade class, and it really took off in middle school, as she fell in love with the stories of R.L.Stine, the early works of Stephen King, and later, fantasy worlds: dragons and vampires and witches. We do want our children to read. It’s just NOT the only way to learn, and we can’t afford to kill the joy in learning by waiting to engage our children until they can!
Image of school sign, source: VA Ed Assoc.

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