Q. What is the core of your research?
A. My work is motivated by the growing need for creative thinking in today’s world. This is changing faster and with far more complexities than ever before — to thrive, we must think in entirely new ways. To help people do this, we need to develop new technologies.
Which kinds of technology would you say are the most important now?
I think it’s vital to provide young people and kids opportunities to create, experiment and express themselves. However, most new technologies do not support children developing into creative thinkers — many are designed just to deliver entertainment or instruction. Our MIT group develops technology which children can control and shape, using it to make their own interactive stories, games, animations and robotic constructions.
You encourage children to learn programming and coding — don’t kids already spend a great deal of time on devices?
It’s crucial to ensure children have opportunities to be creative, regardless of the materials used. It’s great if they can go out to play, build sandcastles or see plants and insects and draw pictures. But they can also use technology to express themselves — importantly, simply receiving tech to play games or see videos is very different from using it to create interactive artworks or animated stories.
Can you tell us about your ‘Scratch’ project?
Scratch began in 2007 as both a programming language and an online community where children could make games and animations and share these with each other — last year, over 30 million children in countries across the world created Scratch projects. By doing so, children develop new ways of thinking and a distinct voice. We see their interests reflected in their Scratch work — today’s children are very concerned about environmental sustain-ability and racial and social inequality. We were struck by a project which came from a young person in South Africa. She collaborated with kids from several countries and together, they created a fictional town where children grew up with certain magical powers. Based on these, they were assigned different colors — we found that this was her way of trying to come to terms with a history of apartheid in her country. By making this mythical town along with other kids, she could express the great tragedies and challenges of that experience.
“Children can use technology to express themselves — simply receiving tech to play games or see videos is very different from using it to create interactive artworks or animated stories. Last year, over 30 million children in many countries of the world created Scratch projects. As their work showed us, children are now very concerned about environmental sustainability and racial and social inequality and they collaborate together to tell these stories”
Can you tell us about your work with marginalized communities’ access to technology?
In 1993, we opened an after-school community center in Boston called the Computer Clubhouse. We saw how young people from marginalized communities were very interested in using technology but didn’t have any access. We opened this specifically for kids excluded from such learning opportunities. Several young people began coming in post-school to use tech and create music and art — in the process, they learned skills along with the competencies and confidence needed in the world.
With a significant grant from the Intel Foundation, we’ve expanded to over 100 Clubhouses in 20-plus countries. These serve marginalized communities where kids learn both technical skills as well as how to adapt, be persistent and collaborate with others.
“Adults need to use a ‘lifelong kindergarten’ approach to bring forward their best work — Kjeld Kristiansen, Lego’s lead owner, has that spirit and this has really helped the company’s success”
Why do you feel that adults need a ‘lifelong kindergarten’ approach in their work?
I’ve always been inspired by how children learn in kindergarten. In one corner, they might be using blocks to make a house. In another, they might be using crayons to draw pictures. They thus learn about structure and color along with the creative and collaborative process where you start with an idea, build it, adapt and adjust it, share and refine it — so much of the work done by adults requires these processes. Kindergarten begins to develop these skills but in most schools, after this stage, children are made to sit in rows, listen to lectures and fill worksheets. They learn some skills but they don’t continue to develop their creative capacities. To support such growth, our work emphasizes the ‘four Ps’ of creative learning — project, passion, peers and play. We find people of all ages are at their best when they work on projects based on their passion, collaborate creatively with peers and function in a playful spirit. We’ve built a Media Lab at MIT based on this — our students use microcontrollers and laser cutters but the approach is the same.
Do business leaders embody these qualities?
I work closely with the Lego toy company and I’m very inspired by Kjeld Kristiansen, the lead owner. Kjeld brought that kindergarten spirit to his work and this has really helped in Lego’s achievements. Some of the most successful business leaders have that playful, adventurous, collective spirit in how they go about their work.
Views expressed are personal