This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.
Earlier this year, a school district in Maine spent $200,000 on the purchase of iPads for kindergartners.
While some parents thought it was a brilliant way to introduce children to their ABCs and multiplication tables, others found it to be a bit excessive. Needless to say, the story has not only circulated the Web, been in every major news outlet, but has also gone around the globe, appearing in European newspapers, asking if these are “essential” tools for the classroom.
The thought of 5-year-olds handling pricey digital equipment, even if it’s encased in a sturdy cover, has certainly made many nervous. Technology is important in today’s schools to give students such skills. But as many critics argue, there’s a limit.
Now, I’m a bit of an oddball. I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone or a Kindle. I still read books the old-fashioned way and love shopping for pencils and notebooks. For someone my age, in their 20s, that can be a bit of a shock.
But I’ve also spent the last year looking at how technology can enhance societies. In areas where people don’t have a doctor, a cellphone can be lifesaving, connecting poor rural patients to urban professionals.
For small businesses in impoverished areas, a cellphone or access to a computer can give them insight and information that can double their income. And a few computers in the classroom can certainly open up children’s minds, allow them to interact with kids in other parts of the world and learn in a more interactive manner.
But every entrepreneur I’ve spoken with, who has launched one of these tech-based social ventures, has told me, technology is great but it’s not the one-shot solution. It’s not going to solve all problems.
So, back to the iPad — is it a necessity and worth the expense?
Recently, I saw a TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) video by Arvind Gupta. He’s a toymaker. But, he doesn’t work at Mattel. Rather, he’s been making toys out of scraps of wood, paper clips, matchsticks, balloons and whatever else he can conjure up. He transforms them into mini sprinklers, pumps, fans, flexagons and even little motors.
His toys aren’t just for play. Rather, they’re for learning. Imagine that: sitting in a class, playing around with scraps and designing little toys, which entertain and teach the basics of geometry, science and engineering.
His simple musings on toys arose out of his experience working with kids in poorer communities who didn’t have access to expensive learning tools. So, he looked to waste, items that are routinely thrown away or very low-cost, to redesign into toys.
Gupta, who says he’s been inspired by George Washington Carver, an African-American scientist who endured the challenges of poverty to become a leading scientist, has now been designing toys out of waste for more than 25 years. Ironically, his work has been studied by researchers at prominent universities, examined in lofty academic papers, and discussed globally.
Gupta’s motto about toys (and learning) is a bit avant-garde. According to him, “the best thing a child can do with a toy is break it.” (Don’t do that to an iPad.)
If broken, the student will just have to rebuild it, forcing him or her to figure out how it works — science class without the textbooks, basically. Rather, discover the solutions yourself. No parameters, no right or wrong methods. Just experiment ’til it works. This is great for imaginations, bad for textbook publishers.
I’d love to go back to school to be in Gupta’s class. He reminds me of the age-old principle “less is more” and how frugality breeds innovation.
To reconnect with our imaginations, our creativity, our desire to build, write, draw and design, we shouldn’t need gadgets. Sometimes, it’s better to think out of the box, the digital box, that is.
Our classrooms, however, do need more emphasis. Our quality of education has dropped when compared to students in other parts of the world. Limited funding for materials and teachers have given rise to new platforms like DonorsChoose.org, a website that lets you donate to a classroom in need in America. And such noteworthy platforms have enabled us to forgo bureaucratic hurdles to give to the classroom we see as the most in need.
But, as Gupta’s talk suggests, we don’t always need more, we just need to restructure what we have, refine it, improve it, make it more efficient and effective. That requires your imagination.
Test yours. Go to http://www.arvindguptatoys.com and see how scraps can transform into learning.
To see Gupta’s TED Talk, go to http://www.ted.com/talks/arvind_gupta_turning_trash_into_toys_for_learning.html.