I am new to the education space. I just started teaching this year as part of a research project. Teaching has always come naturally to me, but I’ve hit a few roadblocks recently. I’ve struggled to find the right frameworks to teach with.
As soon as you enter the traditional education system, you start to operate within the constraints of the classrooms. Lesson plans begin to be conceptualized in terms of what you can do with pen and paper. You start to think about how you can evaluate a whole classroom of students. Anyone in the public school system has undoubtedly felt the slow creep of the educational monster obscuring your sense of what’s possible.
I just attended a panel on the Future of Education at the FAB13 conference here in Santiago, Chile. I didn’t stop typing the whole time. It was like they were giving me a dictionary of nomenclature I had been searching for. They had the perfect words to describe the stuff I wanted to do with my students.
David Cavallo, Director of the Future of Learning Group at the MIT Media Laboratory, spoke about how to change the educational paradigm in favor of project-based learning. David had worked extensively with Seymour Papert, the father of the constructionist theory of learning. The constructionist theory of learning asserts that students should learn by doing. They should choose projects that are of personal interest to them. As an educator, the temptation is often to pre-process, to try to get students to arrive at something we’ve already envisioned. Constructionist theory advocates for the opposite—teachers should support students throughout the development of their own ideas.
He said something along the lines of: too often we spoon feed, chop everything up into tiny, bit-size pieces. We want our lessons to be digestible, easy-to-understand. And when we do that, we fail to simulate real life challenges. We underestimate the abilities of our students.
David noted the failure of our formal education system to take an interdisciplinary approach with regard to technology: “computers got school-ified.” Computers were brought into the existing school system. Computers were put into labs. Students go to these labs and are expected to do “computer stuff” while they’re in the lab. “Computer stuff” generally ends up being Microsoft Word. Computers, as a school subject, has become really boring.
His words almost exactly described my experience with computers in high school. For context, I went to a well-funded public school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Every student took a compulsory Computers class. It took place in a computer lab, and yes, we worked almost exclusively with Microsoft Office products. We made powerpoint presentations with animations, and pointless flyers. Our projects weren’t that challenging so we spent the majority of class on YouTube.
Our whole education system is structured such that we learn one discipline at a time. Math, Science, History, Computers are all nicely segmented into their own allotment of time. How do we make education interdisciplinary? How do we create projects that challenge students to use a wide range of skills? A project where lessons are supported by the ongoing execution of an idea, rather than left unconnected and applied?
Later in the day, I attended an Education for Educators workshop, where we shared ideas about how to bring digital fabrication to the classroom. I had reflected on my own computer programming lesson plans. During my workshops, I would orchestrate students in building a video game I had preconceived. How could I lead students to build things that they themselves had envisioned? How can I turn my lesson plans from a step-by-step instruction guide, into more of a fluid design process? I posed this question to the group.
The FabLatKids team, who aim to create FabLab-inspired activities to classrooms in Latin America, shared their experience. When you have limited time, it’s near impossible to have students build something of their own. You need time. A semester. An ongoing workshop. Students need time to articulate the problem, brainstorm solutions, and evaluate ideas, before even touching a single building material. This makes it hard when we’re trying to design a hands-on workshop where students create something physical.
The FabLatKids team shared a few tips they’ve found to be successful. They’ve found ice-breaking activities to be successful in getting students engaged, and warmed up mentally. They recommend having structure at the beginning, introducing relevant concepts, and then transitioning into free time, where students are free to work creatively.
I feel lucky I was in the room today. At this conference. I think that I hadn’t been able to articulate some of my ideas about education because I thought they were too “soft.” When developing curriculum, I felt like I needed a concrete lesson plan where each student had a clear path of what they needed to do. In the United States, there is so much pressure to have every minute planned, or risk wasting everyone’s time.
Open-ended projects are okay! It’s okay to not know where students will end up. It’s okay to cover topics you may not have anticipated initially. I want to study more about the work that David and his team do at The Future of Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab. I want to collaborate with the creative folks at FabLatKids. They’re on to something huge.