An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture

Children, Toys, Media
Speaker: Mitchel Resnick


A central goal of your work at the Media Lab has been to devise tools that empower kids to create their own media content. What assumptions about children's relationship to media technologies underlie this project? What are the implications of such a project for traditional models of teaching and learning? Calls to empower children often cause adults to fear they are losing control over their children and over the cultural influences that enter their lives? What, if any, restrictions can adults legitimately place on children's access to and use of digital media?

For the past few years, there has been a national effort to insure that school children have access to digital media. What assumptions do you think are underlying this effort to wire the classroom? What are the blind spots in this push for digital education? What kinds of resistance or backlash have you observed? How would you respond to these criticisms?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Mitchel Resnick: When trying to understand the role of media in the lives of children today, it is useful to look back at the role that media played in children's learning historically. For example, when Fröbel started the first Kindergarten 150 years ago, he thought carefully about the role that objects were going to play in the way that children learned and filled his Kindergarten with objects like Cuisenaire Rod, Pattern Blocks and Lego. In fact, Fröbel came up with a collection of twenty carefully designed objects that he called Fröbel's Gifts. He saw that when young children played with these objects, it helped them make connections with some deep ideas like number, shape, size and color that were important for them to learn as they grew up.

If you go into a Kindergartens today, you can see that there is a continuation of that, and they are full of these kinds of manipulative objects. In some ways, Kindergarten serves as a great model for how we should think about all of learning. In many Kindergartens, children are engaged in playful design experiences such as using finger-paints to make paintings, modeling clay to make sculptures, or Lego bricks to make towers and castles. There is a great deal of learning that goes on when children are engaged in that kind of playful design activity.

When we think about what kind of role new media is going to have in children's learning, it is important to learn from the experiences of Kindergarten, but too often we don't. Often, the ways that new media are brought into the world of children is not as a type of material like modeling clay or finger paints. I would like to see computation as just another material to be added to the world of children to allow them to design, construct, and build in new ways. One important difference that this new material has to offer is that it can facilitate making connections to new sorts of ideas. Where some of the traditional media helped children learn certain concepts, playing around with new types of computational media will engage children in thinking about new types of concepts.

For example, these are new types of objects based on a project that we worked on for a number of years. They are called programmable bricks and they constitute a new element in the Lego construction kit. Instead of just building houses and castles, now you can extend the Lego construction kit, and build little creatures. In addition, you might be able to give the creatures rules. In this case these creatures have a rule that when they see each other they go into a little bit of a dance. If I stop them from communicating they'll stop dancing and when they see each other again, they'll start dancing again..

A very important thing to note is that too often, when people think of new types of digital media, they think of something like this, and they say, "oh that's cute", they give a little laughter to it, and then they say, "let's make this into a toy." Then they make it, package it, sell it in a store, and it is fun for about 5 minutes. Then there is virtually no learning is associated with it. You play with it, it dances around, and you're finished.

The richness of play and learning opportunities happens when the kids themselves are designing these -- and especially the behaviors rather than just the structures. How are they going to make the creature dance? What does it mean to make it dance? How is the dance structured? It gets them to think about how behaviors happen in the world, how behaviors of the creatures that they see in the world work, and how their own behaviors work. When these creatures are communicating, what does it mean for this one to send a message over here? You have to start thinking about what the other one already understands. Having a model of the listener is an important part of communication. By building your own communicating thing, you are compelled to confront these issues about the ways we communicate as well. So the act of creating creatures opens up a new set of ideas for kids to be think about.

While new media do open up an important opportunity for a wider range of design experiences, and in turn, those open up a wider range of learning opportunities, it doesn't happen automatically. These objects don't carry the power of ideas in and of themselves. Seymour Papert, talks about the relationship of certain types of objects and "powerful ideas." But the objects only facilitate engagement with powerful ideas -- they do not carry the ideas themselves. So a big part of what we need to do is to give access to other people that can help think about using the technologies in new ways, rather than just grant access to the materials or technologies themselves. Too much of the discussion about access to digital media has only focused on access to the technology, wiring up the schools, putting computers in the classrooms, while too little has gone into thinking about ways of using the technology to help them gain access to new ways of thinking about how to use the technology.

We often talk about this in terms of extending the metaphor of fluency in a language. The ways that most technologies are introduced to the lives of children is a little bit like giving someone a phrase book to learn a foreign language. That can be useful in some cases. I am not fluent in Spanish, so when I go to Costa Rica, it is very useful to have a phrase book so I can go into a store and ask some simple questions. But I can't really talk to people in the street; nor can I tell my deepest feelings to the friends I have developed. The way children are introduced to technology is often equivalent to giving them a phrase book, but not helping them to develop the fluency to express themselves with this new language. What we are trying to do both with the technologies and the environments that we create. It is only by being fluent and expressing themselves that they become better readers of the technology.

I really like the article that Paul Starr wrote called, "Seductions of Sin." He talks about the role of simulations in children's lives and in the lives of policy makers, and he discusses the ways that people over-assume the legitimacy of things that come up in the simulations without thinking about what underlies them. In our minds, the way to break out of that seduction is to let everyone be the creators of those types of simulations. The only way we are going to become better readers of the new digital technologies is if we help the new generation grow up being creators with the new technologies as well.



Steven Lerman: I have worked with my son with this type of technology. One of the appealing notions here is the linkage with the physical world -- the world of moving real things -- to the computational world. I think that most children and most adults' experience those as two divorced realms. The world of the screen, even if it moves on the screen, is not the world of real objects. This linkage is very evocative of how we really want people to think about computers. Have you seen that played out, not only in your work, but in others as well?

Resnick: Children do and will continue to grow up with passions and experiences in the physical world, and we want to take advantage of that. Children can relate to things in the physical world and draw on the intuitions that they have developed by growing up in it. The hope is that children will take advantage of all of the value of the physical world and then extend it in new directions so that they can have experiences in the physical world that they couldn't have had before the computation was there.

Angela Morgenstern: I am working on a television show and Web site for PBS, and I was researching some youth sites when I ventured on to the Media Lab site and noticed Java language for kids called YoYo. Could talk a little bit about how you hope that's going to play out in the real world in some useful way?

Resnick: The project is still in its early stages, and we are just starting to do work out in the world with kids. The idea is to rethink the way that the Web has evolved as a passive medium. People don't consider it as passive because there is more video and sound, and there are a lot of things you can do with that, but in general it is not the type of thing where children can computationally create things to put out there in the world to share with others. On the other hand, languages like Java brought a way for experts to make the Web dynamic. That fit into the framework that the Web is about expert designers creating things that the rest of us use. Of course, that is a type of interaction, but the way that kids get to interact on the Web today is a very thin layer of interaction. This project is trying to enrich that by letting kids themselves become creators of more dynamic content that they can then share with others. This also relates to something that happened in the world of MUDs. Amy Bruckma n, one of my former graduate students, worked with children building things in MUD environments, so they got to do dynamic content that they put out there to share with others. We saw a rich interchange between children constructing your own content and building a community -- being constructors helped reinforce ideas of community and being part of a community helped make them better designers. The idea of children having a much larger design role on-line will make a big difference in how they experience the world. We should also pay attention to the way we design appropriate objects in the on-line world. We need to think more deeply about how we can design objects that will both connect to children's passions and interests, but also connect to the type of deep ideas that we want them to play with too. There are advantages to the physical world as a starting point, but there's a lot that can be done in the on-line world to let children construct there as well.

Ramona Curry: I have a three-year-old who plays with my computer. I give her a blank page in Microsoft Word and she makes letters. She makes them black, makes them disappear and makes them come back. That's playing. The issue is that we do not call media technologies "play technologies," we call them "information technologies." You hinted at something like that when you mentioned that Kindergarten. With the Daycare phenomenon, I think that children are playing and mastering concepts through play earlier than they did before. When they have those concepts down, then we start organizing the information. So the technologies end up being about the exchange of information rather than playing and being creative. What has happened is that computers are being brought into the schools and are used as a way of communicating information.

Resnick: Yes, I think that is a really good issue to raise. Too often people think of the digital revolution in terms of information -- it's even in our language, "the information age," " the information society." It is a real problem. To see it in that way really limits the way we see the possibilities. Information is really seen as stuff. It gets people used to thinking about access to stuff and passing along stuff. We are a little step further; in fact, talking about the information society seems a little old. It is more often referred to as "the knowledge society" which amounts to having information, but also having a context for understanding how the information is used -- but in my mind that is also lacking. It is a step better that we are not just thinking that the information itself is the same as the knowledge, and that we are recognizing that we need a context around it to make sense of it.

What is most important to me about the new digital technology is not that it is leading to a knowledge society but to a creative society, leading to a burst of new ways for us to put things together, and put the knowledge to use. If we think of "knowledge" it focuses too much attention on the operative noun. It gets people thinking in terms of the stuff that you need to get. I think the greatest contribution of digital technology is the ways we can use it for creative construction of things. Usually people don't think of using new technologies for creative expression, but the new technologies enable us to use the kindergarten approach throughout our lifetime. At the Media Lab we have tried to explicitly make the graduate school into a big kindergarten. Playful, creative design experiences are a way of learning that widens the range of the things you can do with it.

Mary Ellen Curtin: Has anyone made a connection between kindergarten and "lurkers"? Or done work on the sociology or psychology of "lurking"? The difference between a lurker and an audience is that the lurker hasn't posted yet -- like a kindergartner or first grader. What makes someone a lurker? It is a lot like being a kid, because it is getting information while not giving it. I don't know about how lurkers turn into participants, if some people only lurk, or if most people participate in some areas and lurk in others.

Resnick: I have some trouble seeing the connection with kindergarten because my image of kindergarten doesn't have to do with lurking. Casting the idea of just standing off and observing into the framework of lurking puts a kind of negative spin on it. If that is the only way some people experience their lives, then there are clearly some problems with that.

I'd rather move towards a context where we play all these different roles. I think it is healthy and productive at times to be a "lurker," to be observing, to be on the fringe or periphery in order to get an understanding of things, and at other times, to be the one who is diving in while others are "lurking at you." I think of these questions from the viewpoint of a designer. As we are designing new technologies, my hope would be to design them in such a way that people feel more comfortable shifting between those roles and recognize when it is useful to play the different roles. An important part of growing up as a good learner is being able to self-regulate, to know when it is useful to play which roles. We generally don't do a very good job helping kids step back and reflect in that way. The technology itself is not going to do that, but it may provide the tools to play out those different roles, and also a way to then talk about them. Even just having the term "lurker" come up gives us a way to talk abo ut this phenomenon. Part of it is to help kids grow up to be able to think about and reflect explicitly on that shifting between roles in different parts of the learning context.

Audience Member: There have been some people who have studied lurking. You could potentially think of it as a time of learning. There are a couple of ways you could lurk, and one might be to learn. Different people might take that position for different reasons...

Sherry Turkle: I know people who went out to specifically study lurking. In my experience of studying life on the screen, I found that many of the people who were lurkers really liked that role. It wasn't so much that there was a kind of dignity to it -- it was not a passive lurking. That is one of the things that really interested me about the notion of lurking. As a student of the way computer language enters into the culture, I loved Mitchel's "lurked at you" as in "the next time they might lurk at you or you might lurk at them." There a sense in which we lurk at each other, and I think that the word allows us to begin to play with the notion of an active observing. People who lurk in MUDs for example -- in virtual communities -- are very with the program. Being invisible is not being "not there"; they're extremely involved in the minutia of the dynamics. I think that the sociology of lurking is that the computer communication has enabled or facilitated a new and extremely active form of observati on.

David Thorburn: Why not call them observers instead of lurkers?

Turkle: In computer talk, lurking has become so legitimized as a social role, I don't think it has that negative connotation that you are suggesting.

Resnick: Another difference is that if you just say "observer," it could mean visible or invisible, while "lurker" generally means not seen.

Turkle: But a lurker is more active than an observer.

Peter Walsh: I haven't studied lurking, but I have written about it in the context of what Shardash said about technology, and that is that it creates ghosts. It creates this ancient fantasy of escaping your body, floating into space, observing floating away. I feel the Web in general is the fulfillment of all these ancient fantasies about being the fly on the wall. I think that it's called lurking, because the people who are being haunted have this anxiety about the lurker. They don't know who they are, what they are about or what they are doing with the information. The concern about these hauntings in the discussion rooms and things like that are all part of this folkloric idea of the disembodied presence around you. What you are saying is confirming some of these thoughts that I have had. People are actually haunting; they are appearing in these spaces so that they can be ghosts and spy on people they way people in New York spy on each other with telescopes. Calling it "lurking" comes from the anxi ety that people have about this sense of being haunted, and having people materialize in their space and then disappear without really knowing who they are.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

  Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture
  • Maria Tatar, Fairy Tales Across Media
  • Sherry Turkle, New Media and Children's Identity
  • Henry Jenkins, Historical Views: Children, Technology, Play
    media in transition    agenda    speakers    summaries    papers    dialogue