Exploration and Xerox PARC

Beginning next week, the students in the House of Awesome will begin a learning adventure called Exploration (known in many classrooms as Genius Hour). Here’s how it works: Every Tuesday afternoon, students will be in charge of their own learning. They will choose a topic that interests them, submit a proposal, plan and conduct their own research, create something to show what they learned, and present their results to the class. While they may explore any topic that interests them, they will be learning fifth grade standards in English language arts, math, science, social studies, and/or visual and performing arts. In addition, they will develop skills in decision making, goal setting, and time management.

This will be a departure from the usual teacher-led classroom routine and a departure from what most of us expect from school. Is it worth spending so much time on free choice learning and creating? What could possibly come out of it that students can’t get from the traditional model of teaching and learning?

Let me tell you a story: the true story of Xerox PARC, established in 1970 in Palo Alto, California. A group of brilliant scientists and engineers were brought together to do basic research. Their prime directive was to invent the office of the future, nothing more specific than that. They were given free reign to dream up and try whatever they were interested in. By some estimates, more than 2,500 of their ideas are still in use today. Here are just a few examples*:

  • Ethernet (technology that formed the backbone of the Internet). I could stop there and that would be world-changing enough. But wait, there’s more!
  • Laser printers
  • The personal computer — the idea that each person in an office would have their own computer rather than just a terminal
  • The concept of a computer that was so easy, even a child could use it. Now my students are creating their own code using such machines.
  • Object-oriented programming
  • The virtual desktop and virtual folders that we all use on today’s computers
  • The concept of a suite of office software with a virtual clipboard
  • Popup windows and menus. Anyone (anyone old like me) who remembers the DOS prompt knows what a leap forward that was!
  • Desktop publishing (Yes, kids, that used to not be a thing. I’m serious.)
  • Postscript, the first technology that allowed a document to look the same regardless of the printer being used
  • WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) technology. Remember text-based editing software, e.g. Word Perfect from the 80s? That was all about to change.
  • The Alto computer: one of the first personal computers, comparable to the Macintosh but released a full eleven years earlier!
  • The concept of the laptop computer
  • Technology for video capture and manipulation that would eventually form the basis of Pixar
  • And my personal favorite: Software on the Alto allowed the user to change between fonts, including — get this — Elvish runes. I love nerds!

Suffice it to say that smart people allowed to pursue their own interests can accomplish amazing things. I look forward to another year of guiding students through the Exploration process. Allons-y! 

*Source: Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik

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