January 4th, 2013

Our New Value: Making Stuff With Kids

Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen

The sixth graders at Marymount School — an independent Catholic school for girls in Manhattan — have a problem they need to solve. The American Dental Association recommends that kids brush their teeth for two minutes, twice a day. But the students know that most kids fall well short of that goal. How — their teachers ask — can they find a solution to this challenge?

The girls open their sketchbooks and doodle possible solutions. One toothbrush plays music. Another comes with a timer. Still another has a tiny TV embedded into the handle. One model grows larger as you brush and then gets smaller when the two minutes are up.

The project takes several weeks and involves more than a few trips to the school’s Fab Lab, a state-of-the art digital prototyping and manufacturing facility that Marymount started in 2011 to more thoroughly engage its students in math and science. It’s here that they transfer their sketches to computer-automated drawings, which are then sent to the classroom’s MakerBot, a 3-D printer that seems like it was plucked straight out of The Jetsons.

While there’s a lot of laughing in the Fab Lab, the class also comes with its share of frustration as students try their hands at solutions that don’t work. That’s all part of the process, says Jaymes Dec, the lab’s administrator, who started Marymount’s program after a grant to facilitate these same kind of lessons with South Bronx high schoolers ran out. “My goal is more about inspiration than education,” he says. “I don’t believe you can just pour knowledge into students. They have to learn things by trying them out.”

Two things:

1. Read the whole thing. I’ve been droning on for some time now that if we are to save schools, our value proposition has to change. We can’t be the places kids come to learn stuff that they can learn on their own in a gajillion different places now. We have to become the places where we help kids make interesting, meaningful, useful, beautiful artifacts of their learning that they can share with the real world. That’s our value moving forward. That stuff that can’t be “Khanified.”

2. This is “unflippable” if you will. I’ve come around to the idea that flipping classrooms has helped teachers individualize with students and make the content more meaningful in practice. But it’s still our content. It’s still about what we want kids to learn when we want them to learn it absent any real context or purpose that makes it meaningful outside the classroom, context that helps them to love it. I’ll take a Fab Lab every day. I’ll take spaces where kids are engaged in work that is meaningful to them, not us.

I know…the Fab Lab is hard. There’s no money. There’s no space. We’d need training. Lots of “Yeah, Buts”. But I’d argue the bigger problem is there is no vision. If we see this as better learning than the lockstep curriculum that we’re currently delivering in a variety of ways in schools, then why aren’t we fighting harder for it? Why aren’t we demanding it? Why aren’t we at least starting conversations around it?

The good news is, some people are.

Need a roadmap? Follow the kids at Marymount. We have a problem we need to solve. Schools are under a huge challenge from the Web, and we’re not changing. Take out your sketchpads. Start fabricating. Start talking. Start dreaming. Start creating a vision for teaching and learning that makes more sense for this moment. Engage in that conversation anywhere you can. 

And then, start making stuff with your kids.

The key, as with all of hands-on learning, is for the grownups not to do what really should be the child’s work. “We want to teach kids that they have a lot of answers inside of them,” says Jason Chua, one of SparkTruck’s founders. “If you don’t get things right the first time it’s OK to continue prototyping and iterating until you find a solution that makes sense.”

We have answers inside of us, too you know. Are you iterating toward change?

  1. jsmummert reblogged this from willrichardson and added:
    Love the idea of the “Fab Lab.” Want one now.
  2. teachers20 reblogged this from willrichardson
  3. theartguy reblogged this from willrichardson
  4. willrichardson posted this
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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!

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