January 29, 2013 by

Side-by-Side Superheroes

EL-Feb13-Cover-Creativity Now This guest blog post is part of a series from Educational Leadership authors. The following post comes from Susan Engel, whose article, “The Case for Curiosity,” appears in the February 2013 issue, “Creativity Now!”

I saw engaged learning in action recently when my sister and her three young children visited me for the holidays. Ike, her 5-year-old boy, is very serious about his superheroes. Imagine his ecstasy at finding that his older cousins–my sons Jake, Will, and Sam, ages 28, 25, and 19–also love superheroes. When my sons began discussing various superheroes (their pasts, their important characteristics, their vulnerabilities), Ike was so excited I thought a vein in his neck would burst.

One cold morning over the holiday, Will, an experienced artist, descended from his bedroom with his high-quality set of colored pencils and a pad. He sat down at our kitchen table and began to draw the Hulk. Within about 15 seconds, Ike was glued to Will’s side, watching him draw. Will set out a piece of paper next to him, and suggested Ike make a drawing, too.

Side-by-side superheroes Feb 2013 ELMag

Ike’s first drawing of the Hulk, shown above, is a terrific rendering–green, with large imposing hands, bulging muscles, a ferocious expression, and a bold stance. It has all the earmarks of a young child’s representation. It is both simple and somewhat simplistic. Ike uses certain basic symbolic conventions, typical of children Ike’s age. The image shows more of what is in Ike’s head than what he sees.

As Ike drew, he chatted away happily to Will about superheroes, glancing briefly now and then at the drawing Will was making. I was cooking nearby and only heard some of what they were actually saying. But I am pretty certain any suggestions Will made to Ike about drawing were brief and casual. Most of their conversation had to do with the Hulk himself and his exploits. Sometimes they just repeated their favorite line from the movie, The Avengers, “Hulk, SMASH!”

Naturally, Will spent a lot longer on his drawing than Ike spent on his. As any early childhood educator can attest, young children tend to draw quickly with a certain conviction. When they are done, they are done. The act of drawing (and the imagining they do while drawing) is much more compelling to them than the actual lines that end up on the page. It’s nearly impossible to get a young child to revise his or her work of art. But many children like to draw the same image again and again. In this way they are not unlike adult artists who paint the same image, or variations on a theme, throughout their careers. So, while Will worked on his careful detailed image of the Hulk, which closely resembled the character as he appears in comics, Ike made a second drawing, also shown above. What strikes me is how much more complex Ike’s second drawing is. Hulk now has spiky muscles, a more detailed face, several different colors, and a hat of some kind.

I think Ike was deeply influenced by Will’s presence–both his drawing and his comments. This deceptively simple activity shared between a skilled adult and a young child is a vivid demonstration of the power of informal learning. For years now, researchers like Patricia Greenfield and Barbara Rogoff have been identifying the processes by which skilled members of a community pass on their knowledge to unskilled members, while engaged in activities that have some purpose beyond teaching. In other words, when children join in a complex activity that is valued in their culture, and work alongside skilled practitioners, they are able to acquire a wide range of new abilities and information.

Key to this formulation is the idea that both novice and expert are focused not on learning per se but on making something–weaving a piece of cloth, building a structure, engaging in a conversation, drumming, or in this case, drawing cartoon characters. The central role of formal schooling, and our eagerness to make it efficient, has led us, as a society, to assume that learning happens best when learning is the goal of the activity. But research tells us otherwise.

Ike picked up (and internalized) a whole set of new skills about drawing, as well as lots of new knowledge about the Hulk, just by drawing and talking with his older, more knowledgeable cousin. As Frank Smith has argued, this kind of learning is continuous and seemingly effortless. It can be easy to overlook, although such informal learning is often more effective and long-lasting that more formal kinds of learning.
Informal learning may be especially important when it comes to instilling in children dispositions like engagement and curiosity. In the realm of inquiry, informal learning has significance and implications for educational practice. We may get a much bigger bang for our buck by giving children a chance to work alongside scientists who genuinely want to know the outcome of a given procedure, rather than by ensuring that children learn a set curriculum, offered through prepackaged “experiments.” Inquiry, like artistry may be acquired best through informal yet intense collaboration between novices and experts.

Susan EngelSusan Engel is senior lecturer in psychology and director of the program in teaching at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.