A Different View of Learning

Kay (2004), The Center of “Why?”. pdf , p. 2

But in 4th grade the teacher, Miss Mary Quirk, was quite different from the start. And there was something very different in her classroom. There was an old dining table towards the back on the right hand side that was completely covered with various kinds of junk: tools, wires, gears, batteries, and books.

Old Dining Table

Miss Quirk never mentioned this table. Eventually, Alan Kay started to poke around to see what was on it.

Set Up

> As a confirmed book rat I first looked at the books. One of them was about electricity and looked very interesting. That afternoon during an English class I set up my English book with the smaller electricity book behind it, and the large dry cell battery, nail, wire, and paper clips behind that. I wound the bell wire around the nail as it showed in the book, connected the ends of the wire to the battery, and found that the nail would now attract and hold the paperclips!

> I let out a shriek: “It works!”

The class stopped.

> I hunched down expecting some form of punishment as had often happened to me in my previous school.

But Miss Quirk did nothing of the kind. She stopped the class and asked, “How did you do that?”. > I explained about the electricity book and showed my electromagnet holding the paper clips.

She said: “Wow, that’s great! What else is in the book?”

> I showed her that the next project was to make a telegraph with the electromagnet!

She asked if others in the class were interested in this, and some were. She said, OK later this afternoon we’ll have time for projects and you all can work together to do the next things in the book. And that’s just what happened!

This happened many times. Children would find stuff on the table that really interested them and made something. Miss Quirk would get the child to show it and see who else was interested to work on it. Pretty soon about half of our class time was devoted to these self chosen projects. We started showing up earlier and earlier for school in the hopes we could spend more time on them. She was always there. We could never beat her to class!

Most of Alan Kay's ideas about how elementary school education should be done are drawn from the way Miss Quirk ran her classroom. She took subjects that would be interesting to the children and integrated real mathematics, science and art together for her curriculum.

> Still later when I lucked into a terrific grad school at the University of Utah, my first thought was that this was just like 4th grade! And then I realized that Mary Quirk had made 4th grade just like a great graduate school!

This is a critical insight. Children are in the same state of *not knowing* as research scientists. They need to go through many of the same processes of discovery in order to make new ideas their own. Because discovery is really difficult and has taken hundreds of years, the difference is that children have to be scaffolded carefully (but not using the Socratic method, it “leads the witness” too much). Instead the Scaffolding has to be set up as close encounters and careful but invisible Sequencing to allow the children to make the final leaps themselves. This was the genius of Mary Quirk. It was interesting that we never found out what she knew. She was *focused on what __we__ knew and could find out*.


KAY, Alan, 2004. The Center of “Why?”. [Kyoto Prize Commemorative Lecture – adapted from the oral presentation Nov 11, 2004]. VPRI Memo M-2004-002, p. 2–3. pdf