A breakthrough in learning?

My maths-teacher father discovered Cuisenaire rods in the 1950s, and tried his hand at introducing them to kindy kids in a variety of primary schools (he was by this time teaching teachers how to teach, and had access to the school system). He was amazed at how quickly these small children discovered number relationships for themselves, including squares and square roots). They needed no teaching: playing with these coloured rods allowed the children  to work things out for themselves.

(For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, a Belgian teacher, Georges Cuisenaire, developed a set of coloured rods, ten in all, with different colours for each number. The colours help the child work out number relationships. Maria Montessori had already used the idea in her schools, but Cuisenaire popularised it among primary school teachers in Belgium, then more generally. Dad met him in Belgium in 1957, and became something of a disciple.)

Cuisenaire rods were a fad of the 1960s, and I’m not sure how widely they are used today in our schools, though you can certainly buy a set of them right now. But I came across, through the help of one of my daughters, a contemporary example of learning through play that is quite inspiring. Read on.

An aid project called One Laptop Per child (OLPC) delivered a thousand solar-powered laptops in sealed boxes to two villages in Ethiopia — not to schools or parents, but to the kids themselves. The computers came with self-educational software. Apparently the kids were told that they could open the boxes and have one of what was inside. But there were no instructions, not even what about what the laptops were, or how to turn them on, or what to do then. According to the founder of the project, what happened then went  like this:

“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”

The point of this experiment was to see whether or not the kids could learn to read and write in English. They could. What is even more exciting, previous studies by the OLPC had suggested that the children could teach their parents to read and write, too, by using the computer.

There’s a lot I don’t know about this experiment. I don’t know how robust the computers are, or how many were damaged quickly in fights, or what the parents did or said. But, as any grandparent knows, kids quickly learn how to operate new technology and make it their own, and they can do it, in Ethiopia, even if electronic technology is utterly unfamiliar to them. And it is enabling technology, which gives it great power.

It is not that we oldies are dopey in comparison. After all, we have survived and prospered without the need for the current new ‘must-have’ technology, and for the most part can go on doing so without it. So our inclination to learn it is small. But for five-year-olds, the mobile phone or the tablet is a new toy, and they will build their growing life around it, until they too, in their elder years, find the latest new technologies unnecessary.

Because I believe that education for everybody, boys and girls, for life, is the key to a good society, I find stories like this one extraordinarily inspiring. Why could we not try it out ourselves, in some of the remote Aboriginal settlements, where  electric power is chancy or non-existent?

If you would like to find out more, the story is here.


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