Tie And Jeans

Archive for the category “LCL”

Endless Gallery of Forgotten Toys

Somewhere, a young person does something impressive.

Young people do, build, and make impressive things all the time. What makes this creation special is that, for whatever reason, it manages to pierce the adult bubble of disengagement and draws attention.

In the conversations that ensue, wether in a classroom or on a news program, ad adult will ask this young person “How did you learn to do this?”

There will be “when” and “where” versions as well, but those answers are consistent and unsurprising. After school, late at night, in the garage. On the margins and in the cracks.

Answers to the “how” question are frustrating and incoherent, in the same unsatisfying category as “where do you get your ideas?” Youtube. The google. Books from the library.

If you’re not an educator, I can forgive you for hearing those fumbled responses, filing the kid under “autodidact” and moving on. Both the questioner and the young person are mistakenly focused on the source of this particular impressive thing, rather than the more important “how” of their learning process.

Look back further.

Anywhere, any year, and a young person wants to do something for which they have no direct mentor available. That is, they’re cheeky enough to become fascinated by something in the fast 93% of human experience that’s not addressed in their grade level curriculum map. What do they do? Where do they turn?

In isolation, our only option is to throw ourselves at the cliff face of knowledge, scrabble for a handhold and pull incrementally higher. This is where the myth or misconception of autodidacts fails us, when we imagine that the truly special swoop in like spiderman and bound effortlessly to the summit.


We all careen in wildly, become hopelessly tangled in our own limbs, and smack painfully into the wall. Everyone.

That is learning. There is no montage.

What emerges from that process is an attitude, equally arrogant and egalitarian. If more than one human knows a subject, then instructions exist. If someone else can learn how to do something, then so can I. What we call “the world” is built by people, no smarter than you.

Armed with that attitude and a universe of information, our autodidact Voltron is complete and ready to change the world. This is the point they reflect back on when asked “how” they learned something. Humans are bad at metacognition, and hyper-focused adolescence exponentially more so. When an young person looks back on this moment, she overlooks the long, frustrating hours exploring things that have nothing to do with the subject of her current work. It was those experiences, the painful failure strewn slog of learning how to learn, that provided the mechanism that propelled her to success. Somewhere along the line, she recognized the whole of human knowledge as a personal invitation. The early work where she tested that theory wasn’t impressive, productive or on-task, but it was essential.

Cultivating those experiences is at the heart of what I call #makered. Past the skills or tech or tools or props, I’m convinced that we need to provide a home to the transformative and fanciful passions that may never yield products that impress adults.

Through a Die, Darkly- Gears of My Childhood

I was struck by Papert’s reflections on gears and thinking in my first encounter with Mindstorms. What a great example for the advantages of living lower down on the manufactured product food chain. It’s taken me well into adulthood to assemble a mental toybox with anything near that level of flexibility. I’d love to have some ur-nerdy totem to enshrine, but looking back I just see the looming influence stories and games, two cultural forces that shape the thinking of most young americans.

I was perhaps more desperate, or more susceptible to the power of stories than some other kids. I’m an only child, read early, and grew up with nearly unlimited access to books and an incredible amount of leisure time. Stories were just the wrapper, the delivery medium for endless skeletons and frameworks of human relationships. I mainlined these, curated and cataloged the different tropes and modes of interaction, and then walked out onto the first grade playground looking for people living out those structures. Every tenuous friendship, and the inevitable collapse of same, has a direct trail back to some stack of texts. I remember a fractured series of moments where I made the right move (an affected bit of nonchalance from cribbed Judy Bloom, or earnestness swiped from JD Fitzgerald), or the wrong one (because no one really talks like Edward Eager or Elizabeth Enright characters).
I recognize that in the modern context, this sounds like I’m describing behaviors on the Autism spectrum, but that’s not the core of it. It wasn’t so much that I was unable to read social cues, just that by the time I was in a particular kind of social interaction, I had already internalized dozens of models for what I felt was the analogous situation. I’ve commiserated with many other only kids who have similar stories of destroying a friendship because the other people refused to behave like their fictional counterpart.

The books I consumed are tied to a particular time and place, and my relative isolation led me to rely on that corpus to an exceptional degree, but this phenomena is not unique. All kids will model some behavior and relationships based on what they’ve discovered in narrative media. My sense is that that this lasts until each individual has enough (often painful) personal experience that other humans have probably not all consumed the same models, and will not follow the elegant script. It’s entirely possible that what I observed as a child as “popularity” was just several kids finding a mutually agreeable shared narrative frame.

The other set of gears that came to dominate my thinking was games. This meant both the abstract characteristics (advantage, momentum, the distinction between tactical and strategic) and the concrete specifics of particular games. Every adolescent who ever rolled polyhedral dice has probably written up character sheets for their friends, and then argued at length over the minutiae of those approximations.

Again, this is profoundly common. What I find notable is how well this set of gears has scaled over the years. An adolescent recognition of STR-based jocks and INT-based nerds shifted to the realization (via Deadlands) that there was a clear mechanical difference between raw intelligence and actually putting that attribute to use. Unlike the narrative gears, this set gained proved increasingly useful as I become more aware of it. Everything from workplace politics to actual programming became far easier to articulate once I stole the concept of limited action verbs from video game design.

What I didn’t appreciate until I left my nerd-heavy corner of California, is how many people have a similarly rich set of game-based gears that shape their understanding of the world, but limited to televised sports. Every time you’ve had serious work described in mixed slurry of football and baseball metaphors, you’ve witnessed the scrabbling friction of one set of game-gears grinding away against the world’s complexity. I’m sure that Olympic wrestling or baseball or rugby are all rich enough that they can serve as useful gears, but the culture’s dominant sports also serve an easy bridge between gear heads.

The problem with both of these is that they’re not classically Papert-ian gears, in that they don’t provide the individual better tools for expanding their intellectual base. Narrative logic and game literacy can help make sense of human systems, but approaching abstract ideas through those frames is often more limiting than enabling. I worry about this when I hear my daughter, also an only, describe ascending place values on an addition problem as Mamas and Sisters.

I didn’t write a simple iterative loop until I was in college, and that simple tool became a profound tool throughout the rest of my academic career. I’m a Scratch die-hard because I see it as the best way of slipping a few more of those abstract gears into a 4th graders’ rushing torrent of association, imitation and modeling.


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