Many of my readers and colleagues know that I have a knack for questioning deeply held assumptions and myths involving education. I also hold positions that others might find extreme. For example, I think curriculum, in all of its forms – especially heavy-handed nonsense like “Common Core – is a terrible idea. I don’t mean bad curriculum is a bad idea; I mean that curriculum itself is a bad idea. (click here for an explanation)
That said,I do not promote anarchy or even believe that “curriculum-free” pedagogy, such as unschooling, result in irresponsible chaos.
For the past several months, I have been working a few days a week as a S.T.E.M. consultant at a school in Los Angeles. The goal is to improve the quality of teaching in the school and I am doing a lot of modeling in classrooms. A couple of weeks ago, I began using robotics in the 5th grade class. I have lots of objectives for using my favorite robotics materials, Pico Crickets, but here are three big ones. I could list a bazillion sub-skills and affective objectives, but I will spare those details.
- Specific science, engineering, mathematics and programming concepts come to life in a tactile fashion.
- Students develop important habits of mind and inquiry skills by tinkering, invention and complex open-ended project work.
- You can learn an awful lot about individual student learning styles, talents and prior knowledge by working alongside them during problem-solving activities. You also learn a lot about their prior educational experiences.
I first introduced the Pico Cricket materials to the kids by quickly showing the special parts in each building kit, asking them to “bunch up” in groups and recreate one of the projects suggested in the pictorial Pico Cricket placemats that come with each building set. After no more than two or three minutes of instruction, I circulate around the room, make suggestions, ask questions, troubleshoot hardware and remind kids to “ask three before me.” I seize the teachable moment and introduce a nugget of information when and where it is needed. Occasionally, I’ll ask one student to pass that along to others or just announce that “Samantha knows how to do X.”
After a session or two of recreating, personalizing and embellishing the project starters, I asked the class to invent new toys. One group built a bowling machine that sent a ball down an alley to knock down pins. Another built a barking walking machine inspired by a book I made available. Two teams approached gumball machine design in different ways, with one even making the machine coin-operated.
Another student was teeming with ideas and enthusiasm, but less accomplished at consensus building with peers. So, I gave him his own building set to work with in an effort to amplify his his strengths while suggesting that he will need to develop greater ability to collaborate. He was the first to program his Pico Crickets and became an asset to other kids who needed to learn to use the Scratch-like programming software.
A motorized car was quickly enhanced by the ability to make it GO and STOP by making a loud noise. One or two sessions of adjusting the sensor tolerance to account for ambient noise and the toy car would stop and start on command! Friction, gearing and stable construction techniques were encountered along the way. Some of the programming needed my help because the software runs much quicker than a loud sound.
After joyfully sharing his invention with anyone he could find, the student had an original new idea!
He changed his computer program so that when a loud noise, such as a clap, was detected, the car would travel forward for exactly one second.
I was busy working with other groups of students and was unaware of the new direction for his project until I saw him lay a meter stick on the ground and grab a clipboard, pen and paper. He decided to measure how far the vehicle traveled (on that surface) in one second.
The kid knew that an average of multiple trials were necessary to ensure accuracy, so he got his TI-15 calculator. I suggested a strip of tape as a starting line and the experiment was underway. After multiple trials, the kid went to average the data and realized that he made a calculation error – without any intervention from a teacher or peer. He tried again and declared, “On average, the car travels 31 inches per second.”
Obviously, the next thing a kid wants to know is how fast the car travels in miles per hour (or kilometers per hour in nations using that silly metric system). Traditionally, this is the point at which all of the fun descends into math class hell.
How many seconds in a minute? How many inches in a foot? Yard? Mile? Seconds in a mile…” Ahhhhhhhhhhh!
That’s when I made my greatest contribution to the learning adventure. I whipped out my laptop, pointed my browser at www.wolframalpha.com and typed 31 inches per second into the calculation field.
A fraction of a second later, the handy web site told us that the car travels an average of 1.76 miles per hour. Not only that, but it provided context by telling us that the average human walks 2.5 miles per hour. Imagine that? Mathematical context!
When simple things, even repetitive calculations, are easy to do, complex things become possible. The student might decide to build a faster or slower car. He might challenge classmates to a robot race or see who can build a vehicle that will climb the steepest incline. These are all invitations to learn about force, speed, mechanical advantage, gear ratios and more. Or the kid may be content with what he has accomplished and embark upon a new learning adventure.
- The project idea belonged to the learner. Occasionally I would ask a question or make a suggestion that would lead to greater experimentation.
- There was no scripted plan or backward design intended to get a kid from point-A to point-B. He achieved his objectives and learned more deeply along the way.
- That new knowledge and expertise is an asset to peers who want to try similar experiments or just integrate this kid’s ideas into their future projects.
- There was no formal show and tell. Kids collaborate and learn from each other naturally when the conditions value freedom, sharing, giddiness, whimsy and movement.
- There is no need to require every student or team of students to reproduce this project now or next year.
- There is almost never a time when more than 2-3 minutes of instruction is necessary before the students do something. If you are engaged in too much full-frontal teaching or whole-class instruction, try lecturing for half as long and shave a bit of time off each day until you get to less us and more them!
- Learning is natural.
- Learning is personal.
- Learning is a consequence of experience.
- Learning takes time, but not as long as it takes to “teach” the same lesson.
- Less is more.
- Kids should be allowed to be themselves and learn in a style that best suits them and a specific task. It is not up to the teacher to determine that comfortable style. Learning styles tend to be a lot more fluid and less confining than even well-meaning teachers believe.
- If you make simple things easy to do, you make complex things possible.
- Computers amplify human potential.
- Computing is the game-changer, not information access or ICT.
- A good prompt is worth 1,000 words!
- Curriculum was unnecessary.
- Teacher expertise and fluency with the materials, based on extensive personal use and experience are critical!
Want more information?
- Attend Constructing Modern Knowledge 2012
- Read 3 articles about effective project-based learning by Gary Stager
- Read Less Us, More Them – Creating learner-centered contexts for learning
- Read This is What Learning Looks Like
- Tinkering resources
- Seymour Papert’s Eight Big Ideas Behind Constructionism
- A Constructionism Primer
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the author of Twenty Things to Do with a Computer – Forward 50, co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.