Dr. Karen Brennan has long been fascinated by learning environments that encourage kids to be curious. She’s spent her career thinking about how students develop computational thinking, and what makes a learning environment fertile for kids to show their ingenuity. She developed ScratchEd, an online platform to support educators using Scratch in their classrooms, and has studied elements of effective teaching through MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten research group. Now she's a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, leading the Creative Computing Lab.
Since Scratch launched 12 years ago, users have created 43 million projects. That’s a lot of creativity on display. From studying the way kids use the platform, as well as effective classrooms, Brennan has seen four crucial ingredients to curiosity:
- Pursue a question that matters to the learner
- Create different representations of an evolving understanding
- Participate in a community of learners
- Constantly reflect on the learning
Scratch is an interactive community where kids can use evolving programming skills to showcase their creativity. But not every child has access to Scratch or to environments that foster this type of curiosity and independence. That’s where teachers come in.
— J Varriano (@j_varriano) July 17, 2019
“The role of the teacher is essential if we really want to make this learning accessible to everyone,” Brennan said at the Building Learning Communities conference. She cited a seminal book on teaching by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity:
"There can be no significant innovation in education that does not have at its center the attitudes of teachers, and it is an illusion to think otherwise. The beliefs, feelings, and assumptions of teachers are the air of a learning environment; they determine the quality of life within it."
Given the critical role teachers play in creating spaces where curiosity thrives, Brennan has spent years observing skilled teachers as they do the work. She noticed that in the most creative, curiosity-filled classrooms teachers actively design opportunities to:
- Cultivate curiosity – Are young people designing questions, asking questions?
- Create – This could take many forms.
- Collaborate – Learn from and with others
- Contemplate – "We know there's no learning without reflection," Brennan said. "What are the opportunities to think about their thinking?"
But it’s much easier to list elements of a creative classroom than to deal with the common roadblocks to creating that space. Brennan put forward three scenarios in which a teacher encounters a stumbling block, as well as some strategies teachers she has worked with used to get past them.