Ages ago, my old Daily Princetonian colleague Mitch Resnick made a revealing comparison between two of the human characters in Toy Story. In case you don’t remember the movie, a crucial part of the action centers around the evil Sid, who lives next door to the saintly Andy. Andy plays with toys the way you are meant to, while Sid transplants heads and glues toy body parts to contraptions he’s made from his Erector set. Listen to Mitch:
As I was watching the movie, I was wondering which of those two kids — Andy or Sid — is actually learning more from the way he’s playing with his toys… Sid actually could be learning an awful lot more — he was actually taking things apart and putting them back together, learning how to make new toys… As I see it, whoever’s doing the inventing is also doing most of the learning — and probably having most of the fun.
Why do I turn to Sid and Andy? The other day, I took an optimistic look at Silicon Valley. But my optimism was built on a belief that we can forge a better education system that takes the strengths inherent in American culture. What we need in our education system is a belief in Sid, not Andy.
That’s not the dominant strain in today’s schools. We’re intent on producing functioning Andys — children who follow the rules, who don’t violate any product warnings, who know the pre-cooked answers. That’s the path of what I sometimes call the “more homework” solution to education. It can be easily parroted: if we give our kids more homework and tougher tests, then we’ll be able to keep up with hard-working students in China. I doubt whether that’s true — kids in what is still a relatively poor country will, given the opportunity, work far harder than kids raised in American prosperity. But even if there’s some truth to the more homework/Andy philosophy, I think it misses the point of what we can achieve with education.
A Sid-based education would encourage children to invent and explore, to chart their own paths, to defy conventions, to explore dead ends as well as promising boulevards. It would demand rigor — I have very little patience for education that doesn’t require the accumulation of key, basic knowledge. Our Sids have to have something to work from, after all. There isn’t a single solution that works for all kids. I like Howard Gardner‘s idea, which he described in an article for me way back when (not available on the Web), of having schools that specialize in different cognitive styles. So for kids that, in Gardner’s terms, have strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, a school — or perhaps certain classes in a school — would encourage one way of learning, while for those with strong logical-mathematical intelligence a different approach would be stressed (and so on, for all of the different kinds of intelligence). A common ground could be found, however, in celebrating Sids rather than Andys.
Outside conventional circles I think there’s a growing movement to create more Sids. I’ve been astounded at the growth of the Maker Faire, which celebrates the Sids of the world. I’ve gone to Maker Faire with my kids, and I reckon at least a third of attendees are parents with children. Then there’s Tinkering School, which is clearly a paradise for would-be Sids. I’m totally unsurprised that both these ventures originate in the Bay Area. Evidence for my optimistic side.