In education, we spend a lot of time addressing the question:  What innovative technologies can children use to learn?

But what if we flip the question on its head?  Instead, what if we ask, “How can children learn to be innovators, not just users, of technology?  How could technology promote student curiosity and innovation?”

These are the questions that drive Pittsburgh Public School kindergarten teacher Melissa Butler and Clarion University of PA professor and CREATE Lab resident artist Jeremy Boyle.  Founders and co-directors of the Children’s Innovation Project, Melissa and Jeremy are noticing and learning ways for children to innovate by approaching technology as raw material.

“The way children play with crayons, paper or clay is the way we have them explore with technology,” explained Melissa in a conversation with my team. “If you think about mathematics, we always want children to get into the depth of mathematics.  With technology, it has been the opposite. Almost all the uses of technology distance human beings from its form and function.  It has made it hard for people to think technologically— to understand the technological logic, think about the unknowns, imagine how parts are working inside these devises. The raw components and the fundamental logic of technology don’t change. If you think about that, the computational logic that is the basis of the digital system is still there. We need to play with that and give all children access to that thinking.”

In the classroom, Melissa and Jeremy have translated their ideas into hands-on exploration and design for students. Children explore and learn about electricity and simple circuits by working with specially designed circuit blocks and other raw materials. They then connect their learning to their world by imagining the internal components of electronic toys, opening the toys to observe and identify the parts, and then repurposing and reconfiguring their internal components into their own invention.

“We focus on habits of mind,” says Melissa. “Technology is a vehicle through which we develop the habits of mind to notice, wonder and persist. Struggling, loving your struggle, failing, reflecting on how it felt to fail. Our work is very much embedded in the process of learning, naming the learning and reflecting on it.”

Children’s Innovation Project learning experiences also emphasize the importance of slowing down and noticing.  For example, children slow down to notice one small object, such as a screw, or spend time examining one small part of something that is new to them. Through drawing, students are asked to observe and capture the smallest details of line, shape, size and texture of an object and to keep turning and looking at the object from different perspectives. Students then use their drawings to talk more about what they wonder. Says Jeremy, “Innovation is not about making something, it is about finding something new inside something known.” Melissa and Jeremy are trying to shift the conversation about what constitutes innovation in order to honor children’s small discoveries and support children’s thinking about themselves in relation to the materials they explore.

What I love about the Children’s Innovation Project is that students are prompted to ask and investigate “What if…” or “What happens when…” questions. Since I was a child in my small town in Kentucky, I’ve been intrigued by questions starting with those few simple words.  These questions are brimming with curiosity and are the beginning of a new idea or innovation.  And, that’s exactly how Melissa and Jeremy are approaching technology in the classroom: What if we teach students to be innovators of technology, not just users of technology?   What might happen when students explore the raw material of technology, not just operate it as a tool?  For a further glimpse into the work, check out their website.

This article is published in collaboration with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: As director of College-Ready Education, Vicki Phillips oversees work to ensure that U.S. high school students graduate ready to succeed, and to improve access to college.

Image: A teacher helps his student with a physics experiment at the Oxford International College in Changzhou, Jiangsu province January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Aly Song.