As far too many American schools become obsessed with time-on-task, achievement, and beating the rest of the world in long division, play, recess, and even socializing over lunch fade into memory. Kids in schools lucky enough to still have art, drama, or music programs often have to wake before dawn to attend “zero period” or stay at school until dark, followed by an obscene quantity of homework. Stress levels are up, childhood obesity increases, school shootings have become commonplace and somehow still, the Dickensian shopkeepers tyrannically shaping education policy wish to extend the school day, lengthen the school year, and speed up the conveyor belt they mistakenly confuse for a learning environment.
Yelling, screaming, running
Turning tree branches into magic wands
Flopping on the ground (“because you’re supposed to”)
Trying on a cape
Wearing funny glasses
Studying a leaf
Cuddling a stuffed stingray
Driving an invisible car
Shouting pow pow pow while waving an imaginary weapon
Tickling a furby
Dressing like a fairy princess
Making new friends
Wrapping a scarf around your friend’s face
Kicking a pal down a slide Shooting hoops
Hissing at classmates
Smooshing a flower into your hand and then licking the resulting pollen
Cleaning up litter
Following my presentation at the March ASCD National Conference, Sarah McKibben of ASCD interviewed me for an article, If You Build It: Tinkering with the Maker Mind-Set, published in the June 2014 issue of ASCD Education Update.
As is often the case, just a few of my comments made it into the final publication. Since I responded to a number of interview questions via email, I am publishing my full interview here. The questions posed are in green.
How would you define making? I talked to Steve Davee at the Maker Education Initiative, and he says that making is more of a mind-set. “Where things that are created by people are recognized, celebrated, and there’s a common interdisciplinary thread.” Would you agree?
I like to say that the best makerspace is between your ears. I agree that it’s a stance that prepares learners to solve problems their teachers could never have predicted with a strong sense of confidence and competence, even if only to discover that there is much more to learn.
Seymour Papert calls the learning theory underlying the current interest in “making,” constructionism. He asserts that learn best occurs when the learner is engaged in the process of constructing something shareable.
In our book, we argue that my friend and mentor Papert, is the father the maker movement as well as educational computing.
In a webinar on your website, Sylvia Martinez said that with making, assessment is intrinsic within the materials.” That it’s more “organic, formative, and internally motivated.” If you’re working with a material like cardboard, without any technology involved (and you can’t base success on something lighting up), how do you assess learning?
First of all, it would be best to take a deep breath and not worry about assessing everything. All assessment interrupts the learning process. Even just asking, “Hey, whatcha doing?” interrupts the learning process. It is up to reasonable adults to determine an acceptable degree of interruption. Perhaps building stuff out of cardboard is just fun.
The best problems and projects push up against the persistence of reality. One could observe a student’s habits of mind. Speak with them about her goals and what she has accomplished. One could imagine thinking about the understanding of physics involved in building a structure, understanding of history in their cardboard Trojan horse, or storytelling ability.
There isn’t anything magical about technology when it comes to a teacher understanding the thinking of each student. That said, we find over and over again that in productive learning environments, kids may combine media, like cardboard, lights, and microcontrollers in interesting and unpredictable ways. The computer is part of an expansive continuum of constructive material.
It seems that there’s a wide gamut of materials in making. From cardboard to Arduinos to expensive laser cutters. You mentioned in a presentation, something about “low threshold, high-ceiling materials.” Can you describe what you mean?
Sure, Tinkering and engineering requires a dialogue with materials in which it is possible for young or inexperienced users to enjoy immediate feedback so they continue to grow as fluency increases. Think of paint and brushes in that context or programming languages, such as Scratch or MicroWorlds. Like with LEGO, simple elements or tools may be used to create infinite complexity and expressiveness.
Can you give me an example of how, for instance, a high school English teacher might bring making into the classroom?
Making real things that matter with a real potential audience. Kids should write plays, poems, newspaper articles, petitions, manuals, plus make films, compose music, etc… We need to stop forcing kids to make PowerPoint presentations on topics they don’t care about for audiences they will never encounter. Kids have stories to tell. They should act, write, sing, dance, film those stories AND learn to write the sort of scientific, technical and persuasive writing that nearly every career demands.
At our Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute, middle school humanities teacher, Kate Tabor of Chicago, used MicroWorlds to “make” the computer generate random Elizabethan insults. Teachers have used versions of Logo for decades to explore grammatical structure and conjugation rules by writing computer programs to generate random poetry or create the plural possessive form of a word.
Steve Davee also mentioned that a key to successful making in schools is to empower students to become the experts–to learn how to use a 3d printer on their own, for example, and to share that knowledge with others. He said that when a teacher has to be involved with a technology or material, it creates a “creative bottleneck.” On the other hand, you’ve mentioned that teachers need to tap into their own expertise to guide students. Can these two approaches coexist peacefully?
Kids are competent. I believe that teachers are competent too. I find it unfortunate that so many educators behave as if teachers are incapable of adapting to modernity.
There is a fundamental difference in stance between assuming that as a teacher I know everything as a fountain of knowledge and that the kids are smarter than me. There may be a “creative bottleneck,” but giving up on teachers or schools is an unacceptable capitulation.
Great things are possible when the teacher gets out of the way, but even greater possibilities exist when the teacher is knowledgeable and has experience they can call upon to help a kid solve a tough problem, connect with an expert, or toss in a well-timed obstacle that will cause the student encounter a powerful idea at just the right teachable moment.
Each year, teachers at Constructing Modern Knowledge construct projects that two years ago would have earned them a TED Talk and five years ago, a Ph.D. in engineering, and yet so much teacher PD is focused on compliance, textbook page turning or learning to “use the Google.”
How does making align with Piaget’s understanding, as you’ve mentioned, that knowledge is a consequence of experience?
Piaget said that knowledge is a consequence of experience. Papert said, “If you can make things with computers, then you can make a lot more interesting things and you can learn more by making them.” Both ideas serve as strong justification for making.
In a webinar, Sylvia Martinez mentioned that instead of looking at standards and creating projects around them, teachers might work backward by creating an educational experience, then filling in the standards. Do you agree with this approach? How would this look with making?
I agree with Papert that at best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe yet our entire educational system is hell-bent on arguing endlessly over which 1 billionth of a percent is important. As an educator, my primary responsibility is create a productive context for learning that democratizes access to experience and expertise while doing everything I can to make private thinking public in order to ready the environment for the student’s next intellectual development. Making is wholly consistent with this view.
As we have mechanized and standardized teaching over the past generation, teachers have been deprived of experience in thinking about thinking. Their agency has been robbed by scripted curricula, test-prep, the Common Core, and other nonsense I believe to be on the wrong side of history. As a result, they can’t help but become less thoughtful in their practice. My work is concerned with creating experiences during which teachers become reacquainted with learning in order to become more sensitive to the individual needs, passions, talents, and expertise of each student. The emerging tools of the Maker Movement provide an exciting basis for such experiences.
As I said at ASCD, you can’t teach 21st Century learners, if you haven’t learned this century.
The future viability of public education is dependent on a system of creative competent educators trusted to provide rich learning experiences for children.
I’m enormously pleased that our publishing company, Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, has just released The Invent To Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom – Recipes for Success. The book is currently available in print and Kindle formats from Amazon.com.
The following is the text of the Foreword I wrote for the book. I hope you enjoy it.
3D printers are hot. They’re so hot that even schools are buying them. Although, schools are thought to be late adopters of emerging technology, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many already own 3D printers.
Investing in a school’s first 3D printer may be a down payment on the future of education; a future in which learning to learn with one’s head, heart, and hands will be equally critical. Making things is a great way to learn and an ability to make the things you need is an important 21st Century skill. The confidence and competence required to solve problems that the school curriculum or your teachers never anticipated will be the mark of a life well lived.
That said, once a school gets their 3D printer working reliably enough for each seventh grader to print an identical Yoda keychain, many educators are at a loss for next steps. That’s where this book comes in. David, Norma, and Sara share 18 projects designed to help teachers teach 3D design and enrich multiple curricular subjects.
Once you get the hang of 3D printing, you will realize how simple the hardware is. The real revolution may not be the printer as much as it is the democratization of design and the Z-axis.
For decades, CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) software was too complicated and expensive for more than a few students to use. It was relegated to drafting classes and vocational settings. Now affordable and accessible software like Tinkercad make design child’s play. The ease of use associated with this new generation software does not mean that the design process has become any less rigorous. Design is where the mathematical reasoning, artistic sensibility, and engineering processes come to the fore.
We were all taught about the X- and Y-axes in school math class. Some of us may even use that coordinate system from time-to-time. However, with the exception of the occasional SAT question about the volume of a cylinder, you might conclude that we live in a 2D world. 3D printing and its design software bring us the Z-axis and provide an authentic context for using and understanding three-dimensional space. This book makes the conscious pedagogical decision to transition from 2D design to 3D artifact.
A common trope in educational discussions is, “Technology changes constantly.” Oh, if only that were true. If your school has spent two decades teaching kids to make PowerPoint presentations on subjects they don’t care about for an audience that doesn’t exist, then “technology” hasn’t changed much for you or your students (in school) since Alf went off the air.
In rare instances, there are revolutionary advances in technology that impact classroom practice. The technologies most closely associated with the maker movement, including: laser cutters, open-source microcontrollers like Arduino, and new ways to embed circuitry in everyday objects may indeed represent a paradigm shift in educational technology.
Since affordable and accessible 3D design is in its infancy, the authors provide you with experience exploring a variety of different software environments. You will also need to adapt instructions for the proclivities of your specific printer. Through this experience, you should be able to decide which software best meets the needs of you and your students. The hardware and software will change. Some of the companies producing your favorite software or printer may not last a school year. As a pioneer, you will need to remain flexible and on the lookout for better solutions. Once you find a software solution (or two) that works for you, use it. You don’t need to jump on every bandwagon or pretend that your students are learning something valuable because you keep changing software. Understanding which tools you choose to use and why is important.
In 1985, I flew cross-country to attend one of my first educational computing conferences. At the opening reception, I stumbled upon two gentlemen engaged in a mind-blowing discussion of Ada Lovelace’s work. One of the combatants was Brian Silverman and the other, David Thornburg. Over the past four decades, Brian and David have contributed as much as anyone in the world to what children are able to do with computers.
As I eavesdropped on the fascinating conversation, I silently vowed to spend the rest of my life in the company of smart people like the Lady Ada fans at that party. Fortunately for me, both men have become great friends and close colleagues. Prior to meeting David, I was familiar with his work through his many articles and the fantastic Logo books he authored. I had also taught with the Koala Pad, an affordable and reliable drawing tablet he had designed. David was already an accomplished mathematician, computer scientist, engineer, and designer with Xerox PARC and Stanford on his CV by the time I met him. Since then, David has been a great friend, collaborator, and trusted advisor.
David Thornburg has a knack for anticipating hot trends and getting educators excited about the future just around the corner. His presentations and countless books have inspired two genera- tions of teachers to use technology in a playful, deep, and constructive fashion.
3D printing and David fit each other like a hand and virtual reality glove. David is a renaissance man – part mathematician, part computer scientist, part engineer, part educator, part designer, part musician, part humorist, and full-time tinkerer.
My longtime colleagues in the Thornburg Center, Norma Thornburg and Sara Armstrong joined David in bringing this volume to life. They too have made indelible contributions to the field of education.
It seemed natural that Constructing Modern Knowledge Press would publish a book by David, Norma and Sara, which situates the 3D printing revolution in a classroom context. I commend you, brave pioneer, as you and your students design the future together.
— Gary Stager, PhD
Publisher, Constructing Modern Knowledge Press
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