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Fabricate you "Little Rascal"!

Yesterday I attended Fablearn 2012 at Stanford University. This was the final day of a two-day conference that brought together researchers and practitioners from the fields of education, computer science, art, and engineering who aspire to transform learning through the use of design thinking methodologies coupled with digital  resources. Throughout the day there was a mix of panel discussions and lectures from experts in project based learning, and design thinking methodologies. Of particular interest to me was the Research panel discussion because it brought together prominent researchers in the field including Dr. Hsi from UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, Julia Walter-Herrmann of the Universitat Bremen, Michelle Hlublinka of Maker Media, and Dr. Gary Stager of the Constructivist Consortium.

The panelists discussed various points including the desire to transform learning through access to tools and resources, ways to define and conceive of the teacher’s role in classroom spaces where children are working on multiple projects, making, and collaboration.  A particular point that was salient for me was when Dr. Stager showed a clip from the Little Rascals. In this clip, (I have selected not to embed the video for reasons which will become evident further in the post) the members of “Our Gang” have fabricated a makeshift fire station replete with fire trucks, hoses, and an alarm system. Dr. Stager aired this video in order to illustrate that  children have had everything that they need to make or design from as far back as the 1930s. He pointed out that in his childhood he was fond of shows like theLittle Rascals and characters like Evil Knievel. Dr. Stager contended that the only difference from the kids of “Our Gang” and today is the proliferation of the computer. He argued that kids have always had everything they need to make things.  However,  he believes that the “stuff” of childhood has disappeared from the classroom.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Stager that many kids have what they need to make things, I want to suggest that what children make is influenced by the ways that they see themselves, teachers see them, and the ways they are viewed by larger society.  In order to do this, I want to point out that as one of the only African Americans in the room, I was taken aback when the Little Rascals was portrayed. The character Buckwheat is a stereotypical image of black boys that evokes ideas of a painful past. The entire time I watched the video, I sat fearing what Buckwheat might say, and how it would be perceived by my peers. Further, I also agree that all kids have ingenuity, yet I want to point out that every kid does not have access to the material resources necessary to make things. Additionally once they obtain these resources, what they choose to make (or resist making) reflects their  identity processes.

Does it serve children of today to evoke nostalgia? Perhaps, it does. However, we must be mindful that children’s lived experiences are different. These are influenced by social and cultural contexts. My hope is that more has changed than the ubiquity of computers since the 1930s. However, my fear is that the unintended consequence of invoking a nostalgic past to promote fabrication, is the further marginalization of groups that do not share these experiences. I am not certain that images that can be deemed by members of marginalized groups as symbolically violent are the best way to motivate.  Rather, I want to draw attention to the idea that while what we create is a reflection of ourselves, it  also reflects how we believe others see us.

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