a scaffold of books

In utero, I had my first encounter with my Object of Learning. Sitting in a rocking chair that belonged to her mother before her, my mom would read aloud from her class notes, book propped up on her belly. These first intimate encounters with knowledge are lost to me, except in some dark and primal reaction to the sound of my mother’s voice, rhythmically following the cadence of an unknown author’s thoughts. In such instinctual ways, my learning and memory has always been linked to books.

As my gaze falls upon my own make-shift monitor stand (a Physics text), I recall the many affordances of books. Not only physically, but also to the imagination. Flights of the fantasy are interleaved with scientific theories and evidence, anything can be encapsulated between two covers.

originally from http://australianmuseum.net.au/Uploads/Images/7651/j054_big.jpg

One of my favorite tomes as a child was an illustrated guide to jellyfish of the world. The tone of this “non-fiction” work was clearly different from the more personal “fiction” books, but to my young mind, the color photographs of luminous sea combs and predatory sea slugs captured my imagination. As I had little understanding of scale, I imagined great finned sea dragons, feasting on dangerous gelatinous monstrosities.

As a student, some remnants of this scaffolding helped me assimilate the jargon and diagrams of invertebrate zoology, and sparked a life-long interest in the tiny, gorgeous organisms that seem so alien to us, yet overrun this biosphere.

Books taught me how to think, in a way. My childhood interest in reading and libraries developed into a generalist approach to my career which has served me well thus far. I learned how to assimilate knowledge from others, to see other perspectives, and speulunk for information when my sources ran dry. In the world of academic research and information technology, these traits have proven valuable.

I wonder though, if more STEM learning activities could be geared (no pun intended) to engage the scaffolding of kids who have had prior experience with imaginative activities like dress-up or story-telling. While LEGOs and gears might be an ideal object to start kids on the path to learning algebra, there is no guarantee that children from every culture and strata of society will have the opportunity to engage with these types of objects. Rather than build new toys, perhaps we should also find toys and mental constructs that are already widely accessible and in use, and build from there.

This post was inspired by Seymour Papert’s essay, The Gears of My Childhood, from his book Mindstorms