March 2014: I'm leaving this old post up, but I've definitely changed how I think about the word "failure," which I use in the speech below. See my thoughts on why I try not to use this word, in this context, with students and teachers.
Below is a "transcript" of the short talk I gave at TED this year (short= 5minutes). Of course, given that I didn't use notes, I'm sure the actual speech I gave varied a bit from this one. If the video is ever posted, I will let you know. (Note that this is from the "TED-U" portion of this year's TED, not the main stage!)
(February 12, 2010- Long Beach, CA)
I truly believe that the one of the best ways to have an impact on the world is to give as many kids and young adults as possible the tools they need to change the world. In a quest to do this, I’ve read a lot of biographies of engineers and inventors whom I respected and began to see an obvious trend.
- · Paul MacCready, one of my heroes, designer of human powered aircraft and champion for more sustainable modes of transformation, grew up building model airplanes on his family’s ping pong table to the extent that at the age of 14 he set the world record for flight duration of an autogyro.
- · Dean Kamen, who went on to develop the iBot wheelchair and LUKE arm, redesigned the lighting system for Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History using Radio Shack parts, while still in high school. So it’s probably fitting that Dean went on to found FIRST which introduces young people to science and technology.
- · The Wright Brothers, after breaking a toy helicopter given to them by their father, tried to build their own, larger version, and had a business selling their homemade kites to their friends, and even built their own lathe. Not surprising, given that their mother, the daughter of a wagon maker, was said to be the mechanical one in their family and created toys such as a superfast sled for her children.
It seems unlikely that these early making experiences didn’t, in some way, lead to these individuals' successes as inventors and engineers. So, I found it a bit scary recently when a report conducted by the Nuts,Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation of the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, Intl., found that 72% of the U.S. teenagers they polled had never taken an industrial arts or shop class.
But maybe that’s not too worrisome- all of the examples I just gave were of “out of school” making. Surely kids are still making at home?
Well, the same study found that 83% of these teenagers reported spending less then two hours a week working on working with their hands on projects like woodworking or model building. (27% reported spending no time on these activities.) Compare that with the amount of time most children watch TV or play video games!
We can think of this as an experiment: What happens to our culture of innovation if we stop introducing kids to the art of making things? We wouldn’t expect a musician to be successful if they were only taught theory and then not handed an instrument until college. The same holds true for making. You’d be surprised at how many engineering students colleges see who have never really built anything.
So why are kids making less? Is there not time in the school day for industrial arts class? Are we afraid to let kids build? In a world where some schools have banned recess as being too fraught with peril it’s perhaps unsurprising that the concept of kids working with sharp blades and tools could cause concern. But are kids really so incompetent that we must keep them away from real tools? One of my favorite school examples comes from the turn of last century when educator John Dewey founded the Chicago Laboratory School which had a strong emphasis on learning by doing. Children studied the manual arts at every level of their education. Dewey championed the need for children to be allowed to build real things, with real tools. Thus, when the kids decided they wanted to build a playhouse, they got some advice from teachers and did it themselves. A two story playhouse, custom furniture, complete with the appropriate building permits, designed and built by children under the age of 14. Jump forward 100 years and we have a generation of kids, many of whom may never be taught how to make things with their own hands. I’m not suggesting that we give a two year old a chainsaw (mine still has a plastic tool set), but that we acknowledge that, like playing an instrument, making is a skill which takes years to develop and is best started early.
There’s another important lesson to be learned through early exposure to building and creating. It’s that making often fails. Any of us who build stuff for a living have had our share of failures. If inventors and engineers stopped at their first failure, we wouldn’t have the airplane, the lightbulb, or countless other great inventions. Learning to work through failure is painful, and best learned early. If a child’s only building project is for a class assignment where failure means a poor grade, it’s understandable why they might not be excited about building things- failure’s scary. But if a child is taught the pleasure of making, failure becomes part of the process. The early helicopters that the child Wright brothers built failed, which allowed them to learn some basic principles of flight. Innovative companies recite phrases such as “Fail Early, Fail Often.” Are we exposing kids to this same acceptance of persevering through failure?
Thankfully, there are a lot of great organizations and individuals who are reaching out to children and teaching them the joys, and challenges, of making. Based on the numbers I just cited, though, we clearly need to expand these efforts. The good news is that getting kids started in making isn't hard. Hand them a screwdriver and teach them how to use it!
Once upon a time, spaceships resided primarily in movies, books, and the dreams of children. Some of whom, after spending their teenage years working on their cars and tinkering, grew up to become the men and women who made manned spaceflight possible. We must ensure that we give today’s children the tools and skills they need to make their dreams tangible.
- Code Name Ginger by Steve Kemper
- More with Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight by Paul Ciotti
- Nuts,Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation of the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, Intl.
- The Elementary School Record No 7, The University of Chicago Press (1900)
- U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission (information on the Wright Brothers)
- They Made America by Harold Evans
- Organizations pictured in the slides I used: