Learning Environments that Crack Open Brains (and Souls)

A few weeks ago I attended a special birthday party: The MIT Media Lab turned 25! I must admit: I have a brain crush on the Media Lab. Why? Above all, it's because the Media Lab is such a powerful learning environment and a great model for transforming public education. I feel intensely privileged to have known the Lab since its birth, and fortunate to have taken part in the making of this incredible shrine of ideas with inspiring thinkers and creators. I sucked it all in from day one, when I was in my 20s, and I've continued to do so to this day. From the time I first encountered this mysterious "research-lab-that-gives-academic-degrees" as a concept, and was selected as a Ph.D. candidate at its launch in 1985, the Media Lab has been cracking open my brain! The weird creative band that led it at the outset -- Weisner, Negroponte, Papert, Minsky, Cooper, Lippman, Benton, Machover, and a few other gurus -- made me fall in love with learning and got me thinking about creating a digital future out of playing with art and science and new technology.

My link with the Media Lab and its people is like a family connection: I've never really left it.
No matter how far away I may go, I carry it with me in everything I do. It's in my blood and soul (and toolkit), interwoven throughout my professional, intellectual, and personal lives -- and often enough it has disrupted all three!

Why? Above all, it's because the Media Lab is such a powerful learning environment.
I am so addicted to the particular learning style of the Media Lab that I continue to replicate it in everything I do -- in all environments I build online, in schools, and in my companies too.

It's the model for the Internet startup I founded 15 years ago, MaMaMedia.com -- a mini media lab for kids and parents. Being the first born-on-the-net creative learning brand for kids, at a time when most people were only able to imagine the Internet as an information source, MaMaMedia showed imaginative and expressive uses we could make of Internet tools. The Media Lab was also the model for Globaloria.org -- an educational social network my World Wide Workshop is today piloting in many American public schools.

Wait a minute, you're probably saying right about now. Come on. Isn't the MIT Media Lab the elitest of the elite? Isn't it the lavishly endowed, extravagantly equipped research center where the smartest people in the world are inventing a future so far away from what real people -- and especially poor people -- even think about?

Yes, it is. It's where Tod Machover is reinventing opera and how to perform it, and where Rose Picard has invented affective computing and is achieving breakthroughs in dealing with autism... where Andy Lippman has been building agile mobile ecosystems that scale intercommunication with no wires... where Cynthia Breazeal invents personal sociable robots... where Hiroshi Ishii and Pattie Maes are redesigning the interfaces between people and their information and creative spaces ... and in different ways, where Hugh Herr is creating smart prostheses for amputees, and Neri Oxman is creating buildings that breathe, and Ryan Chin is rethinking cities and the folding information-filled and energy-efficient cars that will drive in them -- to cite just some of many incredible initiatives.

And you're saying that this unique research center for the most brilliant people in the world, with more than $1 billion poured into it by the most prestigious global sponsors in the past 25 years, is a potential model for public education in communities with scarce resources, limited energy for innovation, and low learning expectations?

Emphatically yes. Exactly. And the reason is simple: What the MIT Media Lab does is create an environment where brains can get cracked open, and that's the way learning happens -- whether you're studying fractions, functions, biology, physics, civics, energy, music, robotics, material design, fluid interfaces or hyper-instruments and tangible media.

Here are 10 things I've learned at the MIT Media Lab:

1. To stay young: because it does not mean being obtuse; it means being open and transparent, playful risk-taker.
2. To dream big: because thinking small and near is quite boring.
3. To understand is to invent: because you cannot invent without understanding.
4. To learn by design: because design means representation, and by representing we learn.
5. To demo or die: by involving the public openly, we learn not to isolate ideas but to compose them out of diverse resources, and to continually open, integrate, explain, revise.
6. To never fear change: because if we want to invent and lead change, we must not fear it.
7. To learn how to create in teams: because good ideas have sex, but great ideas are born of multiple parents. And building stuff that works takes a village.
8. To learn learning: if the only constant is change, we must become expert learners.
9. To empower people with ideas not information: because information is easy to find but ideas are not, and imagination is more important than information.
10. To impact the world: because creative efforts that do not matter and do not help to repair our world are a waste of everybody's time, money, and brain space.

Bottom line: The Media Lab is a Spectacular Model
Learning Environment.

In traditional schools, we study "subjects." At the Media Lab we study thinkers and how to think about thinking by working on projects we dream up and by working on them with other thinkers. In traditional schools we learn to imitate, repeat, and memorize. At the Media Lab we learn to explore, invent, and create. In school we learn to solve small well-defined trivial problems. At the Media Lab we are required to think up big messy problems, or we are out. In school we are advised to take those "easy" classes in which we can score high on tests. At the Media Lab we are expected to dive into areas we know nothing about.

Media Lab curriculum highlights play, intuition, and broad interdisciplinary learning, with the assumption that scientific and artistic breakthroughs drive huge amounts of multidisciplinary learning. In school we submit assignments to teachers. At the Media Lab we build prototypes and present our learning products to the community, the demonstration itself is an integral to the learning process. In school we have to sit and listen. At the Media Lab we are required to move, connect, and make noise about our ideas and their future impact.

In school we create solutions to existing problems given to us by teachers. At the Media Lab we create solutions to problems that do not exist yet, and we work on them together with our teachers. In school we work on homework that does not connect to the world. At the Media Lab the directors and professors are visionary leaders who chase an idea; but the structure allows for individual interpretations of the idea at all levels -- by newer and expert students, young and old scientists, engineers and artists, young and old faculty, and established, award-winning thinkers.

Taking It Home
That's my passion in life as a social entrepreneur: to infuse a heavy dose of Media Lab DNA into the core of any systemic learning intervention I create. Take Globaloria. It is the name of that transformational educational platform now being piloted in many underprivileged public schools. Despite the palpable constraints of any public education system and resource-poor communities, it throws students into creating media-rich video games -- on any subject of their choice with social or civic or scientific significance -- from beginning to end.They learn by doing - -in a creative open-ended process of experimentation and discovery that begins with seeds of ill-defined, unstructured, and unorganized idea. Following the Globaloria curriculum and supported by Globaloria tools, tutorials, peers, experts, or live models, students learn to think, research, experiment, write, design, engineer, teach one another and themselves, act as entrepreneurs of their ideas, and after 150 required hours, their rough game sketches gain focus and shape. Through self initiative and creativity, through joint collaborative ventures in teams, through computer programming and creation of imaginative digital artifacts, through presentations in class and online, they take the ideas all the way to implementation embedded in a digital network that reaches the local community and society at large.

This process is golden. It's beautiful, meaningful, relevant, and engaging. It is spreading seeds of learning to learn the "Media Lab Way:" In such a networked environment, the Kids of Globaloria, like the Researchers at the Media Lab, are letting their brains crack open, dreaming up big ideas, combining art and science and play, producing and presenting their demos, and inventing their future.

It's just the beginning.

Special Acknowledgments: I wish to thank my Media Lab colleagues who inspired me over the years and whose theories of learning and terminology are interwoven in this blog post. Specifically, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, Nicholas Negroponte, and all my Media Lab friends -- you know who you are. After receiving my Ph.D. in 1988, I was thrilled to be invited to hang out at the Lab as Research Scientist and Lecturer. Even when I physically left Cambridge to start my own creative band in the real world, I've continued to work with fellow Media Labbers as advisors, mentors, consultants and employees -- first when I founded MaMaMedia in NYC, and also when I created the social-media learning clinic called World Wide Workshop. In 2006, I was gratified to be asked to join the Media Lab Overseers Visiting Committee, and I continue to care about it. Sadly, my mentor and colleague Seymour Papert, world renowned education technology visionary and leader in the creation of the Media Lab learning culture principles (with whom I worked and published while at MIT, and my companies' Advisory Boards), was not able to celebrate with us, due to his tragic accident in 2006 that left him with a brain that seems to think a lot but cannot communicate. This blog post is in your honor Seymour! And, Happy 25th Birthday to you Media Lab.

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