On TED, Learning, Legos, and Minecraft
Posted on August 22, 2012
Perhaps you’re familiar with TED. No, not Ted your next-door neighbor, who, every time he sees you walking your dog, says, with a satisfied look on his face, “He seems to be walking you,” as if he’s offered up for your consideration some fabulously droll insight. Naturally, Ted’s comment prompts a forced grin of amusement from you even though you’ve heard this observation 72 consecutive times from Ted, and even though it’s apparent your dog is a “she,” as indicated by the purple bandana and hot pink harness she dons wherever she goes. Not that Ted.
The TED I’m referring to is a conference hosted by members of the intelligentsia. As an acronym, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. A typical TED event is composed of slick Powerpoint presentations that aim (with no mitigating pretense of modesty) to reduce complex ideas to splashes of aesthetically pleasing typefont and “intuitive” infographics. The conferences are generally attended by technofiles and the unabashedly optimistic. As a purveyor and general fan of all things TED, I can tell you, with some authority, that most TED talks follow a fairly standardized formula: a speaker (dressed in unassuming jeans and button-down shirt or culturally-appropriate garb) introduces the guiding question of his/her research using an interesting anecdote, proceeds to describe the problems with conventional methods of addressing whatever issue they’ve problematized, and then proves–using all manner of techno-gee-whizzery–to show how their approach to thinking about the issue is not only novel, but revolutionary. TED conferences also have a characteristic mood: something akin to a religious revival crossbred with a college lecture. Add to this a pinch of hyperbole and a healthy dash of “innovation,” and you begin to get the picture.
If I sound mocking or condescending, it’s probably just a defense mechanism. Truth be told, there are few things I’d like more than to be invited to speak at a TED event. The problem, of course, is that you have to do something worthy of being invited to be invited. Therefore, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I will immediately commence a nonstop marathon of live-blogging my opinions regarding the recent landing of the Mar’s rover Curiosity. I feel as if this act of self-indulgence will, when coupled with a bit of celebrity endorsement and tastefully tapered graphics, automatically guarantee me a speaking time-slot at the next TED conference. In conferring my astute and globally significant comments to the rapt audience, I’ll make sure to hold my hands in the signature TED pose, which looks as if one is holding an invisible beach ball of knowledge (see the TED homepage for reference).
All joking aside, there are some legitimate critiques of the approach that TED takes. In an article appearing in the The New Republic titled, “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov offers a scathing takedown of the gimmickry and salesmanship that passes for ideas at TED conferences. Morozov (correctly, I think) identifies many TED enthusiasts as possessing an abiding faith in the power of technology to short-circuit the gross inefficiencies of institutions and governments, and provide exponential, positive change. This faith lends TEDers an increased vulnerability to tech-evangelists–individuals peddling utopian visions of a techno-centric future that amount to insubstantial fluff. He’s essentially saying that TEDers bear similarities to Fox Mulder (co-protagonist of the X-Files): they want to believe so adamantly that they fail to see when and how they’re being conned. You can find his article Here.
In response to the Kony 2012 video, novelist Teju Cole wrote a series of tweets which labeled the video and similar attempts to combat the disadvantages/injustices many experience in third world countries “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” A particularly stinging tweet reads, “From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.” Cole’s critique of Invisible Children (the non-profit that produced Kony 2012) and TED is similar to Morozov’s: it chafes against the idea that a flashy presentation, enthusiasm, and compassion are enough to challenge and defeat the evils of the world. Click Here to go to Cole’s full article in The Atlantic.
For all its inherent weaknesses, TED does manage to get some things right some of the time (I’m an admitted fan, after all). Several talks given at TED conferences address the importance of play as a building block for learning. It is these talks that I can really sink my teeth into (talks addressing the importance of smiling are somewhat less enthralling). In This talk, titled, “A manifesto for play, for Bulgaria and beyond,” Steve Keil identifies “seriousness” as a pervasive problem. According to Keil, the pressure to be serious and treat important problems with a sober-faced gravitas actually prevents us from finding solutions to them. In Another Talk, titled, “Play is more than fun,” Dr. Stuart Brown identifies the important cognitive benefits that play, fantasy, and other “childish” activities have on a person’s mind, regardless of age. Finally, Tim Brown outlines how play and creative thinking go hand-in-hand in This talk, titled, “Tales of creativity and play.”
The idea that play and learning are closely related is not novel. Piaget was preaching this message for a long time. He stressed, among other things, the social benefits of play (play as a means of overcoming egocentrism). Erikson saw play as a method of helping children cope with the more difficult aspects of development by encouraging autonomy and initiative. Vygotsky saw play as a vehicle for the child to delay his/her gratification (unmet desires are healthily dealt with as fantasy). In all these approaches, play is the central facilitator of growth, maturity, and learning.
Again, this idea is not novel, it feels intuitive, and most people–upon hearing it–would say, “Duh!” But its implications are pretty big. So big, in fact, that entire industries have been built up around the premise that play leads to cognitive benefits (at least in children). I don’t know about where you’re from, but in Louisville there used to be a chain of stores selling educational toys called Zainy-Brainy. I would venture into the store from time to time as a kid to check out the yo-yos and browse the board games. Zainy-Brainy has since gone belly-up, but there is one perennial heavyweight in the educational toy industry that still churns out the magic: Lego.
My relationship with Legos has something of a mythology built around it. As a child, Legos were one of the few things I requested for birthdays and Christmases. I liked the pre-designed sets (who could forget the awesomeness that was Fort Legorado?), but I loved the buckets of Legos that allowed for freestyle play. I designed spaceships, moonbases, race-cars, and all manner of amorphous plastic sculptures (I was trying to up my Lego-cred in the notoriously cutthroat world of nine-year-old brick sculptors). My friend and I even entered a Lego building contest in which our self-designed spacecraft won second place; we were rewarded with a sizable $10 gift card to some store somewhere. We didn’t do it for the monetary compensation. We certainly didn’t do it for the chicks. We did it for the glory!
To further prove how awesome Lego is, I’d like to direct your attention to Exhibit A. If you click on the link, you’ll be directed to a 17-minute video detailing the history of Lego. It’s styled as a Pixar film, and there are parts of it that sound like shameless corporate propaganda, but come on–it’s Lego! I defy you to not like it.
Legos are exceptional educational toys because they offer a medium through which a person can create. In a world of Bop-Its, Bratz Dolls, and electro-amplified glitz, Legos still manage to shine through, capturing the hearts and imaginations of thousands of children. In a curious reversal of conventional thought, many parents and educators are beginning to see the value in allowing students access to toys as basic as wooden blocks. A recent NewYork Times article (found Here) details how wooden blocks are making a comeback as a trendy educational toy because research suggests playing with playing with wooden blocks helps to improve children’s cognitive abilities. And what are Legos but colorful, more functional wooden blocks?
If I were giving a TED talk, now would be the time when the lights dim, I turn to the audience, and in a tersely worded prophecy, articulate my main point: “Digital technology has finally given us a potentially superior alternate to Legos.” Gasp! Muttering. Anxious shifting in seats. “Enter Minecraft!”
If you’re unfamiliar with what Minecraft is, you can easily be forgiven. It’s a relatively new phenomenon that has sprung up in the fertile soil of extreme geekdom. Minecraft started its life as a computer game, but is now found on everything from X-Boxes to iPhones. It is essentially a sandbox style game in which your character can explore, create, and play with others in a digital world composed of pixelated cubes. Minecraft allows you to mine (i.e. dig stuff out of the ground and/or chop stuff down), and craft (i.e. combine the stuff you’ve dug up and chopped down to make other stuff). This is, of course, not the only thing Minecraft is. In the game, you can use materials to create series of functioning logic gates (tiny computers), complex machinery, and build ornate superstructures (see This time lapse video). My Attempt to construct a house and grounds is not so impressive as the aforelinked video, but I do have a treehouse complete with bookcase!
Minecraft and Lego share a hands-on approach that is fundamental to learning. Whenever we confuse the flash, glitz, and glamor with the relatively boring–but still really cool–process of actual learning, students suffer. Bratz Dolls may be cool, but they aren’t Legos. Similarly, there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what TED is. TED is not an educational tool; it is an inspirational tool. Inspiration is the precondition for learning, but it should not be confused with learning; they are two distinct processes. You cannot stop a warlord by sticking a Kony 2012 bumper sticker on your car, just as you can’t learn physics by hearing an awe-inspiring physicist speak about the Multiverse. You need, I need, and we need the time and opportunity to play with ideas and try them out. We need a sandbox in which to get to know our world, and our time spent in the sandbox must be playful. It is only through play–which is the deep “Yes” that interested and interesting people respond to the world with–that we can make change.
For interested and interesting people, you can download Minecraft Here.