Educon session video – MakerEd Design Sprint

This is the video of the Educon 2014 session “MakerEd Design Sprint”. Unfortunately, it’s not very good audio or video. The first ten minutes or so are hard to hear, and then when we move into the actual working part of the session, there is not much to watch. Everyone there was working in small groups and sharing their ideas.

The website where we collected the group work (lesson ideas and prompts) is here:

Failure is not an option. Unless it is.

finger pointing
Really, it’s not pointing at you.

In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, my co-author Gary Stager and I took what I would consider a fairly even-handed view of the current fad of celebrating “failure” in the classroom.

I’m starting to reconsider a more radical stance.

In the past few months, I’ve been seeing more and more articles about how kids should embrace failure as a path to learning. Mottos like FAIL (First Attempt At Learning), “Fail your way to success”, “Fail early, fail often” are being held out as examples of how students should be encouraged to be fearless and not let challenges or mistakes stand in their way.

I understand the intent. I’m all for the iterative design process where roadblocks or challenges are celebrated as learning opportunities.  Of course people learn from mistakes, if there is time to actually ponder those mistakes and try again.

Here’s the problem. It’s the word “failure.” Failure means a VERY specific thing in schools. The big red F is serious. In school, failure is NOT a cheery message to “try, try, again!”, it’s a dead-end with serious consequences.

Using this loaded word to represent overcoming mistakes, hurdles, challenges, detours, etc. is confusing and unnecessary. Teachers cannot talk about failure as a challenge, when failure also means judgment – the worst possible judgment.

And yes, I do just mean teachers. Specifically, teachers who are grading the work where the “failure” may take place.

For others, it’s not the same. I’m not saying that a teacher has to correct EVERYONE’S language, just your own – if you are the person with the power to grade. Parents, librarians, club leaders, even the students themselves can choose to use this word. If you aren’t grading a child, then the word is not as loaded. If a child wants to call something an “epic fail” then that’s their choice and represents their ownership of the process and the word.

Is this just silly semantics? I don’t think so. For example, there is plenty of research that students confuse feedback on their handwriting with feedback on their writing content and therefore their thinking. They hear “bad writing” and “bad writer” as one and the same. Kids mistake lack of speed at math worksheets with being unable to “do math.”  Do students hear “fail” and “fail” and get confused? Are you sure this can NEVER happen? If there is even the slightest chance of that, and there are so many other good words to use, why not choose another word?

Call them challenges, bugs, roadblocks, unexpected events, hurdles, mistakes, prototypes, drafts, or first tries. But why use the ONE word that means the ultimate, often unrecoverable, most humiliating judgment in school?

If you want to empower students, why choose a word that so forcefully communicates the ultimate teacher-power, the power to grade. Why privilege a word that reminds both teacher and student that ultimately, the teacher has the power to judge their work, despite cheery homilies or posters to the contrary.

Why spend time and energy trying to rehabilitate a word that has such baggage?

I know you may be thinking that students are smart enough to figure out the difference between “failure” that happens while a project is in process and “failure” that goes on your permanent record. But how does one make that distinction, except for the fact that it’s a “real” failure whenever the teacher decides it counts. Do we just have to hope that students grasp that subtle point?

I may want to fight to rehabilitate the word “failure”, but as long as it’s being used by school in its current form, there are better ways to communicate with kids.

Making Thinking Visible

One of the advantages of using “maker” techniques in the classroom is that when children make things, it helps make their thinking visible to a mindful observer. This is true authentic assessment.

But some teachers may wonder exactly what they can do to make this happen. An initiative called “Visible Thinking”, from Project Zero offers guidelines to help teachers create the culture and climate in classrooms so that visible thinking is a normal part of the learning process.

An article in Educational Leadership, Making Thinking Visible: Teaching Children to Think is a good introduction to these techniques.

Six key principles anchor Visible Thinking:

  • Learning is a consequence of thinking.
  • Good thinking is not only a matter of skills, but also a matter of dispositions.
  • The development of thinking is a social endeavor.
  • Fostering thinking requires making thinking visible.
  • Classroom culture sets the tone for learning and shapes what is learned.
  • Schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.

This short article contains ideas and suggestions for teachers who wonder about what to do to make sure that “making” in the classroom results in real learning for students. For more in depth resources, including routines and structures for different types of learning situations, check the Visible Thinking website.

Why we’re excited about the Maker Movement, maybe you should be too!

magazine coverTech & Learning magazine’s cover story for October 2013 was “Meet the Makers: How the Maker Movement Could Change Schools for Good”. In this article, Dr. Gary Carnow, longtime education technology advocate, interviews me about the Maker Movement and  the exciting implications and opportunities for schools.

Meet the Makers

The next revolution in education will be made, not televised.

Here is what happens when you ask two Tech & Learning advisors to trade notes on one of the fastest-moving phenomena in education technology. Sylvia Martinez (SM) recently co-authored Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Dr. Gary A. Carnow (GC) is Chief Propellerhead of Prolific Thinkers and the former CTO of Pasadena Unified School District. He is also the co-author of multiple edtech books. Both are excited about the Maker Movement. Read why you should be, too:

GC: I shudder when I hear that my local school is now reinventing itself as a STEM or STEAM school. STEM or STEAM is an interesting label, but it limits what is happening across the world outside of traditional educational institutions. A growing army of empowered parents and creative teachers are banding together in Maker Faires. What is this Maker Movement and why does every reader of Tech & Learning need to know about it?

Sylvia Martinez

SM: A number of reasons. First, it’s a global technological and creative revolution. Some very smart people are predicting that the tools and technology of the Maker Movement will revolutionize the way we produce, market, and sell goods and services worldwide. Want a new watch? Don’t ship it across the world, just print it out! Better yet, design it yourself and then print it out. Something this epic should be on every educator’s radar.

Next, the Maker Movement advocates a “Do It Yourself” or DIY attitude towards the world and problems that need solving. Learning to use what you’ve got and “give it a go” are valuable mindsets for young learners.

Plus it’s cool! Makers worldwide are developing amazing new tools, materials, and skills and inviting the whole world to join in the fun. Using gee-whiz technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to life.

Finally, the Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. For educators, I believe that being open to the lessons of the Maker Movement holds the key to reanimating the best, but oft-forgotten learner-centered teaching practices.

Global Maker Faires and a growing library of literature inspire learners of all ages and experience levels to become inventors and seize control of their world. Online communities serve as the hub of a global learning commons, allowing people to share not just ideas, but the actual codes and designs for what they invent. This ease of sharing lowers the barriers to entry, as newcomers can easily use someone else’s codes or designs as building blocks for their own creations.

However, at the Maker Faires I’ve been to, I’ve met countless parents who say to me (as they watch their child happily soldering, building with LEGO, or programming robots) “School is killing my kid.” And unfortunately, I know what they mean. We can and must do better, not just for the empowered parents who can take their child to a Maker Faire, but for all children.

Dr. Gary Carnow

GC: The Maker Movement, according to Wikipedia, stresses “new and unique applications of technologies, and encourages invention and prototyping. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them creatively.” What does that mean for classrooms today?

SM: The new Next Generation Science Standards makes explicit calls for meaningful assessment, interdisciplinary knowledge, creativity, inquiry, and engineering. Specifically, we must change how schools approach science and math.

In too many cases, science and math have been stripped of practical applications because of a false premise that practical math is only for students who don’t go to college. This is a recipe for disaster and I think we see the results in students who gradually lose interest in STEM subjects over the years. We cannot and must not continue to pretend that success in STEM subjects means memorizing the textbook.

Making is a way of bringing creativity, authentic design thinking, and engineering to learners. Tinkering is the process of design, the way real scientists and engineers invent new things. Such concrete experiences provide a meaningful context for understanding abstract science and math concepts while often incorporating esthetic components. Creating opportunities for students to solve real problems, combined with imaginative new materials and technology, makes learning come alive and cements understandings that are difficult when only studied in the abstract.

We must bravely reintegrate actual labs and design into science. We must be able to answer a math student who asks, “Why do I need to know this?” (And the answer should never be, you’ll need this next year.) We must reinvent classrooms as places where students ARE inventors, designers, scientists, and mathematicians TODAY. Making is the avenue to this reimagination of 21st century education.

GC: Your background is engineering. I began my career as a teacher of gifted children. We both subscribe to MAKE Magazine. Where do teachers, parents, students, and administrators, or for that matter anyone who is interested in providing meaningful experiences for students, begin?

SM: In his 2005 book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld described the next technological revolution as one in which people would make anything they need to solve their own problems. Gershenfeld predicted that for the cost of your school’s first computer, you would have a Fabrication Lab or fab lab—a mini high-tech factory—capable of making things designed on a computer. This prediction is now reality.

In our new book, we identify three aspects of the making revolution that are game-changers for schools. All of these are accessible and affordable today. Any of these are great places to begin:

Computer controlled fabrication devices: Over the past few years, devices that fabricate three-dimensional objects have become an affordable reality. These 3D printers can take a design file and output a physical object. Plastic filament is melted and deposited in intricate patterns that build layer by layer, much like a 2D printer prints lines of dots that, line by line, create a printed page. With 3D design and printing, the ability for students to design and create their own objects combines math, science, engineering, and craft.

Physical computing: New open source microcontrollers, sensors, and interfaces connect the physical world to the digital world in ways never before possible. Many schools are familiar with robotics, one aspect of physical computing, but whole new worlds are opening up, such as wearable computing. Wearable computing, soft circuits, and e-textiles use conductive thread and tiny mobile microprocessors to make smart textiles and clothing. Other kinds of new microprocessors, like Arduinos, combine with plug-and-play devices that connect to the Internet, to each other, or to any number of sensors. This means that low-cost, easy-to-make computational devices can test, monitor, beautify, and explore the world.

Programming: There is a new call for programming in schools, from the Next Generation Science Standards to the White House. Programming is the key to controlling this new world of computational devices and the range of programming languages has never been greater. Today’s modern languages are designed for every purpose and every age.

The common thread here is computation. The computational potential of these technologies, tools, and materials elevates the learning potential beyond craft projects. Of course there are things to be learned from building with cardboard or Popsicle sticks and in our book we discuss ALL kinds of making and makerspaces for learning. But computation is the game-changer that should make educators sit up and take notice.

All of these experiences and the materials that enable them are consistent with the imaginations of children and with the types of learning experiences society has long valued. Making is a stance that puts the learner at the center of the educational process and creates opportunities that students may never have encountered themselves. Makers are confident, competent, curious citizens in a new world of possibility.

GC: What matters most about learning to me is not the product but the process. What I love about the Maker Movement is that makers rarely work in isolation. Making is a social activity. The Maker Movement embraces failure and believes that everyone can make. When I look back on my traditional schooling, what I remember is that I had gifted teachers who knew the power of project-based learning. I remember the projects and the process and have little memory of whatever facts I had to cram for the dreaded “pop quiz.” What brought you to the Maker Movement? Is this just the next big thing or is this the real deal?

SM: Gary, you pack a lot into your questions! What brought me to the Maker Movement is that it deeply connects with my personal reasons for becoming an engineer. I wanted to know how to solve problems—real problems in the real world, not textbook problems. I think all kids want to change the world, and the Maker Movement and Maker ethos teaches kids that they have the power to make the world a better place, NOW. They don’t have to wait for a book or a teacher to tell them what to do, because there is a whole world out there of people all trying things and sharing the results. Somebody somewhere is asking the same questions as you and by sharing the journey, we all can learn more.

I realize the attraction of always searching for the “new new thing”, the magic wand that will fix all problems. I don’t believe that the Maker Movement is a magic wand. I hope it doesn’t get turned into a buzzword. Maybe we can talk more about how to make sure the hype doesn’t overwhelm the promise of the Maker Movement in schools. However, it is my strong belief that educators who look deeply at the Maker Movement will find a wealth of new ideas and inspiration to revitalize their classrooms and give children the opportunity to touch the future.

See the whole interview here… and I hope that Dr. Carnow and I can continue the conversation in future issues!

8 Great Ideas to MAKE Back to School 2013 Memorable

Start the year off with hands on!
Think you need to wait for kids to settle down and learn the basics before you let them do projects and hands-on work? Not according to this expert teacher.

Making the Case for “Making” in the Classroom
Check out my new book – Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Educators can use the tools, technology, and “can-do” attitude of the global maker revolution to revitalize learner-centered education. A teacher PD book club read, perhaps?

Marketing your tech vision. What message will you share?
What message does your Acceptable Use Policy send when it goes home with students for them and their parents to sign? This year, change overly complex, negative language to language that celebrates the potential of technology – and students.

Games for collaboration and teamwork
Want to create a more collaborative, constructivist classroom? Instead of traditional icebreakers, try these games that encourage collaboration and teamwork.

What do students want from teachers?
Listen to what students say they really want from teachers. And no, it’s not “more recess.”

Student technology leadership teams for laptop and BYOT schools
Are you getting more devices this year? Laptops, iPads, iTouches, netbooks or going 1:1? Do you have enough tech support? Enough support for teachers using new technology? Enough support for students? No? Well then learn how students can be a great resource when to ease the burden on overworked teachers and IT staff – and mentor other students. Student run “Genius Bar”, anyone?

Ten commandments of tech support
Ten ideas for making technology support more learner-centered and less network-centered.

8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab
Last but by far not least, if you are looking for some inspiration to post on your wall, here are 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab. These eight ideas give actionable advice to create opportunities for deep learning for all. (Also in Spanish)

Happy back to school! MAKE it a great one!