Friday, August 31, 2012

Century of the Child: Moving Forward

Source: MoMA
This summer, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 exhibition. The inspiration for this show was taken from Swedish designer and social theorist Ellen Key’s book, Century of the Child, published in 1900. Key saw the 20th century as a period of progressive thinking about the rights, development, and well-being of children as important to nurture in society.

Source: MoMA
As we get deeper into the 21st century, some of the same issues raised at the beginning of the last century are emerging today, particularly in the area of education. The exhibition examines “the material world of children from utopian dreams as citizens of the future to the dark realities of political conflict and exploitation.” Sound familiar? During the last century, modern architects and designers preoccupied themselves with childhood, including school architecture, clothing, playgrounds, toys, games, and a lot more. MoMA produced a wonderful interactive website to go along with this exhibit. The timeline walks the visitor through the objects on display by period, complete with detailed information and related works.

Source: Pat Kane, The Play Ethic
The exhibition starts at the turn of the last century when the kindergarten movement emerged. The "children's garden" was to be a place that valued a child’s enjoyment, creative process, and intuitive investigation of materials. This is not what many kindergartens look like today. Too often they are worksheet driven in preparation for testing. Ironically, the timeline ends with the quote by Pat Kane from his book The Play Ethic, featured here, on how play will be our dominant way of knowing, doing, and creating value. Perhaps we should send legislators and government officials on a field trip to this exhibition.

Historically, the notion of what’s best for children changed as events of the world and advancements in technology evolved. Similarly, the preoccupation with the best way to educate children is going through the same process today. Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the focus on creativity and play in the classroom. For more than a decade, NCLB has pushed education into mediocrity, opting for a homogenized system to pass tests. We’ve taken the play out of learning, and as a result, children have disengaged in a flawed process to the tune of over a 35% dropout rate.

Source: ASIDE, 2012
Today, free play to learn how to socialize, invent, and imagine is rare; instead, child's play is organized. Add in diminished recess, limited physical education, and worksheet-driven classrooms and we have a recipe for unimaginative kids who lack a passion for learning. It is no wonder that we have trouble getting kids to think creatively. If they can’t play, they can’t learn and certainly not innovate.

This is Tony Wagner’s point in his most recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Innovation is interdisciplinary. We need to promote play, passion and purpose for it and break free of fixed silos of learning. Creating innovators is not part of mainstream, conventional education that is too focused on measuring assessments through one-right answer tests. Likewise, the Common Core with all its good intentions still forces the same evaluation of student performance and now teachers, too.

Source: ASIDE, 2012
Like the modernist of the last century, we should see this as a push for progressive design thinking and advocate for the value of play, creativity, and design as intrinsic parts of student learning. The emergence of design thinking into the pedagogical milieu of educators toward long-range solutions is growing. If we combine this with a reformed and integrated approach to learning, doing, and making things, there’s no telling what could grow out of it.

Interestingly enough, the Century of the Child exhibition began with how “…the new pedagogy [kindergarten] prized authentic expression, the inspiration of the natural world, and the creative potential of every individual, every child.” Isn’t that what we want today? We think yes.

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