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Intelligent Machines

Three Questions for Tech Education Pioneer Scot Osterweil

An MIT education expert says we should enjoy our free time and let technology do the work for us.

Scot Osterweil is the creative director of the Education Arcade and a professor at the MIT Media Lab. He spoke at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference about why educators need to encourage more creativity—and how that could help us build a better, more leisurely future.

Scot Osterweil
Rethinking education: Scot Osterweil speaking Wednesday at the EmTech conference at MIT.

What’s wrong with American education?

Virtually all conversations about American education start on the premise that we have a crisis. The crisis is usually reduced to the simple fact that American students don’t seem to score as well on the international tests as students in other countries.

We’re looking at the wrong data. The reality is that there are problems in American education, but we have diagnosed the wrong problem. Because in fact, if you look at the data, Americans have always scored worse on those international exams, including the generation of students who invented the personal computer, the Internet, and basically fueled America’s high-tech dominance. Those students in school were scoring worse collectively on the exams. So those exams are not predictive of anything. There’s pretty clear evidence that people’s results on those exams correlate very well with poverty. If you actually normalize the scores for similar distributions of income, it turns out we’re scoring just as well as all those other counties.

If you visit most of the countries that do really well on those international exams, they all ask, How can we capture the entrepreneurship and the creativity and the innovativeness that we see in American students? So we are, in a sense, trying to drive our education system in the direction to be more like the places that would like to be more like us.

So how can we take advantage of what we’re good at?

What we need to do, to some degree, is sort of return to an era of free-range children, where there’s more play, more discovery. The problem in America right now is that kids are having less time to explore and invent and discover. The one space where I think kids are still being as adventuresome as they ever were is in the space of games.

I don’t mean to say that all education could be done through games, but I think we can look at what happens in game play and we should try to model that and make more of our education system like that, where we present kids with authentic challenges, give them freedom to really explore those challenges and invent solutions. The powerful thing with technology is that we can also, in the same process, be assessing how kids are doing, unlike the current assessments right now.

How do we encourage people to make more of their creativity?

It’s strange. We’ve always seen technology as a way of increasing productivity and saving labor. And now that we’re actually reaping those benefits, we don’t know what to do about it.

What we really need to do is to give people back free time. The real challenge to education is to educate people on how to use that free time. So we have a choice. We can either have people sitting around idly, slack-jawed, watching TV and wandering the malls, or we can really teach them how to be lifelong learners and lifelong makers. We can unleash their creativity and encourage them to recognize that their playfulness is actually a productive activity, even if it isn’t used for work.

And if people are beginning to use those skills, whether it’s writing software or designing things for 3-D printers or doing carpentry or other kind of crafts; if people get back in touch with the pleasures of those activities and sharing those with their communities, their neighbors, including their neighbors on the Internet; if we have a population that’s productively engaged—we’re actually achieving what we always wanted to achieve with technology.

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