• 01.16.12

Can These Simple Cartoons Help Redesign Education?

Born to Learn is a collection of animated short films aimed at changing attitudes about how we mold young minds.

Can These Simple Cartoons Help Redesign Education?

Were you bored in school? Guess what, so was Einstein! Does that make you a genius, too? Not likely, but according to a new project called Born to Learn, it does suggest that our educational practices might need a rethink. The project’s main thrust is a series of short, simple animations aimed at raising awareness about how the minds of young humans are “born to learn”–but not necessarily “be taught.” Here’s their intro:


“Your brain is the planet’s most powerful learning machine. But our current systems of education aren’t doing enough to unlock our true potential. This is what Born to Learn is all about,” the site proclaims. The short films (there are two so far) “sum up over 20 years of rigorous and complex research” culled from history and evolutionary psychology. The main thrust seems to be that a) contrary to what Fight Club says, you are a beautiful and unique snowflake; and b) everything would be better if we taught kids by doing instead of memorizing, and trained them to see connections and “the big picture” rather than isolated pieces of problems with no clear purpose.

The films’ stripped-down visual style certainly goes hand in hand with the simplified (perhaps oversimplified) ideas they espouse. The clip above stops just short of arguing that we should all go back to a pre-industrial village life so we could learn skills by apprenticing, instead of spending 12 years in school just to get stuck in lame cubicle farms. This kind of romanticization of what was, for most people, a nasty, brutish and short lifestyle just makes me roll my eyes. The industrial revolution is “what went wrong”? Last time I checked, it takes more than villages and apprentices to produce things like the insanely powerful general-purpose computer you’re reading this article on, not to mention the standard of living we take for granted when we whine about our boring cubicles.

But the general point these videos make about education is still compelling: that integrated, multidisciplinary thinking is not only an essential value to inculcate into our children, but that it probably suits our mental machinery better than rote memorization of silo’d factoids. Connecting disparate systems and identifying innovative patterns is to the 21st century what mechanized manufacturing was to the 20th. New technologies may be able to combine the best of traditional textbook-and-classroom-style education with more interactive tactics that harness the “learn by doing” circuits that these videos talk about.

[This one explains that you can’t learn something unless you take responsibility for doing it.]

Then again, Steve Jobs–a cross-disciplinary autodidact if there ever was one–was notably skeptical about technology’s ability to move the needle forward in improving education. He might very well have appreciated Born to Learn’s stripped down, back-to-basics philosophy. Kids and teenagers will have their whole adult lives to specialize into worker bees if they want or have to. Why not spend their formative years teaching them to think different?

[Explore Born to Learn.]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.