What Schools Can Learn from the History of Mr. Potato Head

The first ( of what I hope is an annual) Online Home School Conference finished on Saturday, August 24 with an excellent lineup of speakers. It was an action and content-packed event with a wonderfully and unusually diverse group of speakers and attendees.  There were unschoolers, faith-based homeschoolers, world schoolers, learners of a types, free and democratic school advocates, teachers and leaders of traditional and alternative schools, researchers, faculty, authors, consultants, and community activists. It was also encouraging to see such diversity of perspective represented.  My understanding is that they plan to run the conference a second time in January, so keep your digital eyes open for announcements and a call for proposals. You can check the web site, or my guess is that new information will also show up on Twitter under #homeschool14.

While I appreciated and learned from many excellent presentations, the one that provided me with largest aha! moment was with Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning. More specifically, it was his comparison of schools to Mr. Potato Head. I should note that Elliot’s comment informed and inspired this post/article, but his comments are mixed with my own commentary.  Elliot explained that Mr. Potato Head was originally sold as a box full of pats with push pins that you could insert into an actual potato (or perhaps a cucumber, banana, orange, or even a pumpkin). It was up to the individual to decide what and where to add the items, and my guess is that young people often improvised by adding their own self-made items from around the house. That is how it started.  As noted in the Wikipedia history, there was push-back about the idea in the earliest days because of the food rationing that occurred in the previous years during World War II. Nonetheless, it started as a toy in some cereal boxes. Not much later, as it became a stand-alone toy, it continued to be just the parts, with the users contributing the potato.

(Note: I did not do much fact checking on this.  I’m largely leaning on the Wikipedia article and the sources cited in that article, but I verified the general concept with a couple of people who experienced these early toys firsthand as kids.)

Things changed in the 1960s due to government regulations.  Those push-pins were too sharp so they required the makers to do something about that, and the small parts were a choking hazard.  In response, the next iteration of the toy included a plastic potato body with holes that allowed the add-on parts (with dull edges) to be inserted in the pre-determined locations. Then there was a third version.  This was similar to the last, but the parts were all larger (to decrease the choking hazard and/or to minimize the need for some of the fine motor skills, perhaps?). The shapes of the holes in the plastic potato body were also changed so that parts could only be inserted in certain holes and in certain ways (Although I think that changed back as the last time I played with a Mr. Potato Head with my kids, we were free to add the parts as you saw fit.).

Elliot Washor used this as an illustration of our school system.  We have regulated and industrialized the system.  There is even arguably good cause for some of the decisions (e.g. safety).  Nonetheless, what did we lose in the process? As I reflect upon this illustration, I can’t help but think about alternatives to the highly regulated and increasingly standardized approaches to standards and curricula. As shown at the Homeschool Conference, The Alternative Education Resource Organization and many such events and communities, the possibilities are nearly endless and there are many exciting and promising communities in place, ones that seek to offer learners an environment that is characterized by discovery, experimentation, and self-directed learning.

As I often note on this blog and elsewhere, and as I was reminded during this conference, we are in the Wild West Era of education today, and that is exciting. I am honored to live, take part in, and learn from the many promising possibilities for learning and community in the 21st century.  How about you?