What does “making” have to do with learning?

Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.

—Martin Heidegger

One of the biggest issues I have with many descriptions of “making” in education is that it’s about students just being creative with tools or materials.  I strongly disagree. Making is not just the simple act of you being the difference between raw materials and finished product, as in “I made dinner” or even “I made a robot.” I don’t think we always need to ascribe learning to the act of making — but the act of making allows the maker, and maybe an outsider (a teacher, perhaps) to have a window into the thinking of the maker.

So, do you always need a teacher for learning to happen? No. Some people are good at thinking about their own process and learning from that (“Wow, that butter made the sauce so much better.” “Next time, I’ll test the circuit before I solder.”) and some people are less likely to do that. But if I watch you cook, I will see certain things – how you organize your ingredients, how you react when you make a mistake, how you deal with uncertainty — and that is what teaching is about. A teacher who is a careful observer can see these kinds of signs, and then challenge the learner with harder recipes, a question to make them think, more interesting ingredients, or a few tips — all with an eye towards helping the other person learn and grow.

Technology like Arduinos and 3D printers have not become intertwined with the maker movement in education simply because they are new, but because they are some of the most interesting ingredients out there. Many of these “maker materials” rely on computational technology, which supports design in ways not possible otherwise. The command “Save As..” is possibly the most important design tool ever invented. Saving your design file or code means you can “do again” without “doing over,” supporting the iterative process and encouraging increasingly complex designs.

Complex technology, especially computational technology also allows educators to answer the question, “Isn’t this just arts and crafts?” And of course after defending arts and crafts – we can say that computational technology allows these same mindful habits to connect with the powerful ideas of the modern world that we hope children learn. Design and making are not just important for the A in STEAM, they are essential, but here’s a bigger idea, they are also essential for the T & E — and for them all to come together.

There is simply no technology without design; the definition of the word is literally “things in the designed world.” Making is a way to realize the “logo” part of the word – from the Greek word (logos) that means “word” but specifically words that express the order and reason of the universe. To Greek philosophers, a word was more than a sound or a mark, it was the embodiment of an idea — an idea made real. And yes, the Logo programming language owns this derivation as well.

The power of using computational technology in education is that the versatility and transparent complexity allows learners to make their ideas real, to make sense of the world, and to see their own capacity grow. This visible process also allows teachers to support and scaffold learners on their journey.

Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.

Respect: The Essential Ingredient in the Design of Modern Learning Environments

Cross-posted on GetIdeas.org Learning Trends series on Cultivating Leadership.

A modern learning environment should reflect everything we know about building a community, developing young people, and providing a healthy environment for human beings. We know that people, no matter their age, feel better and are more productive in spaces that are comfortable, clean, and suited to their individual needs. When leaders make these choices — in fact, insist on them — it shows respect for the people who inhabit them.

If we take the time, we can structure learning environments that meet all the needs of children and the adults who teach them. Yes, of course they should be safe, secure, and healthy. But we can go further. We can make these spaces more flexible so that the inhabitants have control over aspects that matter to them. We can make them quieter, calmer, and more comfortable. Most of all, we can use design to improve learning opportunities for everyone.

Prakash Nair, a futurist, planner, and architect with Fielding Nair International, a leading architectural firm specializing in school design, says, “Rather than simply be invested in short-term fixes, any new support for school facilities that districts receive should go to develop tomorrow’s facilities as infrastructure responses to an educational philosophy—one whose goal is not to control students, but to empower them to take charge of their own learning.”

We can build spaces that diminish the distinction between the “control spaces” – such as teacher desks, podiums, projection screens, and the “controlled spaces” – student desks facing the front, electronics that are not controlled by the user, locked thermostats, loud bells and intercoms that interrupt at will, etc.

We can give design projects large and small over to students. Why can’t students help design a new classroom, community space, or play space? But this can’t just be an imaginary project, some generic “school of the future.” Why can’t they do it with their real environments?

This creates natural collaboration opportunities with peers and experts of all sorts, provides challenges at many levels, and, best of all, is really useful. Giving students this kind of responsibility creates a win-win situation where students are valued for their expertise and hard work – real, needed work!

All of this has to do with respect:

  • Respect for the inhabitants by flexibly addressing needs of mind, body, and soul
  • Respect for the community by designing a welcoming space that lives in harmony with its surroundings
  • Respect for the communal and the individual
  • Respect for nature by creating sustainable, green spaces
  • Respect for learning and the importance school has for our community, nation, and world
  • Respect for tradition balanced with respect for progress and new ideas
  • Respect and celebration of all aspects of the human spirit that education aspires to. Learning is not just about math or taking spelling tests. The goal of education should be that art and science flourish together, so that young people can imagine and become their best selves.

This sense of respect, belonging, and shared responsibility is the essence of citizenship and leadership. When we show young people that we care about them, we communicate that what they do matters and is valued by the whole community. Respect for others, communicated through the design of educational spaces is leadership that can change lives and make the world a better place.


The Third Teacher

Here’s an interesting new book called The Third Teacher. The book  is an exploration of how design can transform teaching and learning, becoming “the third teacher” in the classroom, after adults (parents and teachers) and children (peers and self).

The 79 ideas come from an ongoing collaboration between educators, youth, and designers.


No argument here!

Deliberate Tinkering

Presentation Zen: 10 Tips on how to think like a designer.

Design in the real world is often a process of deliberate tinkering. Sometimes the goal may be clear, with timelines, budgets, and constraints. Or the goal may be less clear, as you struggle to come up with something “better” even though no one quite knows what that means. Sometimes you work for days or weeks, making small incremental steps, sometimes things come in a flash of brilliance.

Yet in school, there is often a rigid “design process” with stages that imply a linear progression from start to finish. Whether teaching writing, video production, the “scientific method”, or programming, it often seems most efficient to provide students with step-by-step assistance, tools, and tricks to organize their thoughts and get to a finished product.

However, this well-intentioned support may in fact have the effect of stifling creativity and forcing students into creating products that simply mirror the cookbook they have been given. In fact, some students, having been well-trained to follow directions, will simply march through the steps with little thought at all. On the other hand, students need some kind of support and structure, right?

So how do you combine the benefits of tinkering (creative chaos, brainstorming, time to reflect) with getting something done. I believe the answer lies in looking at the design process in the creative world – such as graphic artists and designers.

Presentation Zen is a website devoted to simplicity in design and a recent article provides some great direction for classroom projects: Presentation Zen: 10 Tips on how to think like a designer.

Here are the tips from the article:

(1) Embrace constraints. (2) Practice restraint. (3) Adopt the beginner’s mind. (4) Check your ego at the door. (5) Focus on the experience of the design. (6) Become a master storyteller. (7) Think communication not decoration. (8) Obsess about ideas not tools. (9) Clarify your intention. (10) Sharpen your vision & curiosity and learn from the lessons around you. (11) Learn all the “rules” and know when and why to break them.

I hope you read this article; it provides much food for thought.


Two new white papers on games in education

Two white papers were released last month from The Education Arcade at MIT. Both are about video and computer games for learning, but look at this issue from slightly different angles.

Moving Learning Games Forward looks at games, learning and education with a long lens. It provides a detailed historical analysis of how computer games first were used in schools and proceeds through the heyday of educational software in the 1980s to the present move to web-based games. I was very pleased to see how much of this mirrors my presentation on Games in Education for the K12online conference, but of course, my 20 minute presentation barely skims the surface where they dive deeply. I’ll be adding this to my Games in Education resource wiki for sure!

The paper goes on to lay out some ideas for how learning games should be designed, and has great references and sources for additional reading. This is a must-read for educators seriously interested in games in education.

The second paper, Using the Technology of Today in the Classroom Today, is slightly narrower in focus. It is written for classroom teachers interested in bringing games and simulations into the classroom, with practical suggestions and case studies to help with planning and implementation.