July 12, 2013

Today I attended a conference hosted by CRI called NightScience. It was fascinating. This is the third year of the event, and each year “the event remains faithful to its original mission: get together knowledge creators”.  There were twelve speakers who gave presentations on their work, all involving interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary education. These people were “researchers, hackers, psychologists and education innovators” who “shared their approaches and experiences on building new ways to achieve always better knowledge construction and transmission”. The focus of the conference was how to change the education of children around the world. The intent was to look at children “as natural researchers ready to engage in knowledge adventures”. There were people from all over the world listening and sharing their experiences.

The keynote speaker, Alison Gopnik (University of California Berkeley) began the conference by teaching us about the relation between the length of childhood and the intelligence of a species. She argued that the amount of time that humans have spent as children has increased over time, and that this is an evolutionary trait. The longer we spend as a child, learning through our experiences and failures, the smarter we become. Gopnik described this correlation as related to the way children approach their environment: as natural researchers. Children are great at being scientists, for they are curious about everything. Gopnik emphasized that adults should not try to behave as children, for then evolution would never continue, but that adults need a protective space during their work to be creative and explore more. Her talk had lots of interesting ideas, but what I focused on was that the way children think could be instructive for scientific leaning. Following Alison Gopnik was Robert Full who also teaches at the Univeristy of California Berlekey. His talk was full of examples of how children are great researchers, and how in many ways children propose better ideas than his undergraduate students. His talk also taught me a lot about gecko’s feet and cockroach’s legs, which was really neat. You should look at his Ted Talk.

The other speakers offered similar ideas of how to better construct and transfer knowledge in our highly technological age. Patrick Marchal, founder of WeWantToKnow, designed a video game, Dragon Box, that teaches algebra to five-year olds. Even though the game only teaches kids the mechanics of how to manipulate algebraic expressions, the idea of what subjects kids can learn at what age was lightly addressed. It was argued at the conference that it is only once we understand the mechanics of a craft that we can attempt to understand why it works. So even though the game might ignore how and why algebra actually works, the game provides a foundation of algebraic mechanisms that will help kids to eventually ask why these mechanisms work. WeWantToKnow is now working on games to teach children physics and biology. My question was whether WeWantToKnow is trying to design a video game that will teach humanities to children. What would that even look like? And why do we want to make education into a video game? It all seems a little suspicious to me.

Ibrahiuma Saar taught us Mozilla Webmaker’s advances in the education of coding. He claims that coding is the literacy of the future, so it is important to teach children how to manipulate webpages. You should take a look at Thimble, Popcorn maker, and x-ray goggles to see how Mozilla is making the language of coding as simple as possible so that anyone and everyone can use the web. No one asked what it would do to our society if coding was to become the language of our future. That seems like something that should have been asked years ago.

There were other speakers such as Laure Kloetzer, and Kathryn Harcup who presented on how we can bring data analysis to the public. The idea is to open up all of the unprocessed  knowledge that is out on the web, and make it so that anyone can organize and analyze it. Young Rewired State makes this possible for children. The examples of what some children have accomplished is ridiculous— you should go check it out on their website. While you are at it go look at P2PU, founded by Philipp Schmidt, to see an example of how the future of education is changing.

I could go on and on about the presentations and the neat scientific facts that I learned, but what is more interesting to me is how no one mentioned the words “interdisciplinarity” or “transdisciplinarity”. Everyone was working on these immensely ID/TD projects, but it was like the words were taboo. At the end of the meeting I approached Ariel Lindner one of the founders of CRI, to ask him about this. He said that it was obvious that these projects are fundamentally ID/TD. He explained to me that all the people at the conference agree that ID/TD are the future of our educational systems, so there is no need to reiterate the obvious.

Might I propose three problems to this response? First if ID/TD institutions have their own private conferences to discuss their work and they do not integrate with the disciplinary intellectuals (who also have their own private conferences to discuss their work), how will these two distinct forms of education merge? Doing ID/TD work without branching out to the disciplinary people of academia as well as the public is just as dangerous as having a conference on some narrow niche of discipline. ID/TD shouldn’t try to become a new discipline in academia, with its own boundary work and its own conferences and workshops that are separate from the other disciplines. ID/TD conferences should bring as many disciplinarians to their conference to show them the importance of ID/TD educational reform and research. This is just as important as filling disciplinary conferences with interdisciplinarians so that the disciplinarians can share the importance of their work to the interdisciplinarians.

Another problem was that while it may be obvious to the people who attend this conference that these projects and ideas are fundamentally interdisciplinary, you still need to reiterate this point. By not using the vocabulary of ID/TD these speakers allow for the public and the disciplinarians to misunderstand their work. ID/TD are not yet at a point where you can assume that people understand what these two words mean. In fact, no one really knows what it means to do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. It is a new idea, (it has only been around for maybe thirty years) and it will take some time for everyone to grasp the concepts behind interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.

The last problem that I saw was that the conference was structured around science. Although it was great to learn about how children are learning to become researchers and how children are understanding science at very young ages, what about how we can teach children Descartes and Monet? Why is it that the focus is on science and not the humanities? Of course each speaker at the conference did have an aspect of their work that included either the social sciences or the humanities, but these areas of study were always on the outside of a scientific issue. The core of each project was science, and then the project would apply interdisciplinary aspects around the edges of their work. Shouldn’t these projects be a mix of science and the humanities and the social sciences from the beginning? These areas of knowledge should not be separate in any way. From the core to the edges, the entirety of the project should be ID/TD in nature.

I by no means want to put down this conference. It was wonderful and I learned a lot. I only want to share some of the ideas that were buzzing around in my head throughout the day. So to end this post I leave you with some final questions: where was the speaker on the philosophic implications behind having children as researchers? Why is it that philosophy is forgotten about today? Every issue discussed at this conference had a net of philosophic questions weighing it down. Where was the field philosopher of the conference?


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