Putting Away the Books to Learn

Bright.com (the education section of Medium.com)  has published an article called Putting Away the Books to Learn by Jackie Ashton.

It starts with the question: “The “maker” movement has swept across schools in California and beyond. Can it fundamentally change K-12 education?”

The article profiles several schools involved in “making” and quotes some folks, including me, about how “making” has the potential to change education. Most of my interview ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. But that’s the way the media cookie crumbles, as they say!

It’s an interesting take on “making” and the article struggles a bit, I think, to situate it in a learning context. Not that I’m surprised or criticizing. It’s the heart of the difficulty of advocating for “maker education” – the examples start to sound like you are cheerleading for any techy type thing that kids put their hands on, whether it’s thoughtful, challenging, academic or not.

Even the title “Putting Away the Books to Learn” is a misinterpretation of the kind of classroom experience I advocate for. In a maker-enabled learning space, books and reference materials (both online and physical) should be one of the most important tools available to students.

For example, at our summer institute, Constructing Modern Knowledge, we bring cases of books to build a library for participants. We believe that this highly-curated library is one of the most important aspects of creating a model maker learning experience. Books can inspire and inform, or sometimes just provide a coffee-break for a tired brain.

Maker education is not an either/or choice between old-fashioned and new-fangled stuff. It’s grounded (hopefully) in ideas about the ways learning really happens inside the learner’s head. Beyond that, there are definitely some technologies that can enhance the quest to teach students about the real world, but to me, the “stuff” should take a backseat to the learning.

  • Can you do “maker” without a 3D printer? Yes
  • Can you do things with a 3D printer that give students access to ideas otherwise nearly impossible? Yes

Both of these can be true, and that may seem confusing. But I think the possibilities inherent in all these seemingly contradictory paths are worth exploring. There is no one model of maker education that is going to work for every learning space and every learner. That should be seen as freedom to be nurtured, not a deficiency.

The Project Approach – a project-based-learning framework

The EKWQ framework was developed by Sylvia Chard, a leading project-based-learning expert and author of The Project Approach. This chart summarizes the EKWQ framework.

EKWQ – Experience, Knowledge, Wonder, and asking Questions

A Framework to Start the Project Process

EKWQ builds on student experience to generate authentic student interest in a topic, shared knowledge, and practice in exploring the known parts of a topic before tackling the unknowns.


Teacher’s Role


Examples: what students do

Experience Ethnographer – learn what students already know through observation Share & represent existing experiences with topic. Tell stories, write, draw, make paintings and collages, make clay models, construct with blocks, role play, etc.
Knowledge Support student activities and encourage deeper explanations. Deepen prior knowledge and develop expertise Interview/survey each other, take notes, collect data. Represent the collected research in charts and graphs. Develop theories.
Wondering Coordinate work to develop collective understandings and research process Learn what other students know and explore differences. Share expertise. Draw conclusions and explore areas of interest, unknowns, and curiosity.
Ask Questions Articulate – Help students turn “wonders” into driving questions Develop driving questions for projects. Create lists of questions. Brainstorm ideas and consolidate.

Note: KWL (a popular instructional planning tool used to create charts of “what we Know”, “what we Want to know”, and “what we Learned”) may sound similar. However, Chard notes that KWL was designed for instruction centered on reading of texts and is not enough for a project, and worse, KWL can inhibit the development of student interest.

Read more about The Project Approach.

Is “Design Thinking” the new liberal arts?

Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts? (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Short answer: NO

Long answer: First, I hate the fact that this article is not available publicly, because it might be interesting to actually read. And it’s totally not fair for me to critique it based simply on the headline. That out of the way, let me expand on the short answer. No, “design thinking” isn’t the new liberal arts.

How about this headline, “Is this Harvard course on Jane Austen the new liberal arts?” or “Right triangles – the new geometry?”

That’s not to say that Jane Austen and right triangles aren’t interesting things to study and students could certainly go deeper than current curriculum practices tend to do. But let’s be clear. Design thinking is a way to “schoolify” the process of design, and to focus on a narrow slice of product design.

Now – you can tell me that this school or that curriculum gets design thinking “right” and I’d probably agree. A teacher who cares about design and has agency over his or her classroom can take the process of design thinking and do amazing things. (See Design Thinking, Computational Thinking, and Making in the Classroom – Good, Bad, Worse for my thoughts on this.)

Unfortunately, a lot of design thinking goes back to school dressed up in way too much process – too much planning, too teacher-managed and teacher-directed, too focused on “the market” as a driver, too much delivering a report “about” a product, and not enough actual doing.

It’s human nature to look for the new new thing. And I heartily applaud teachers looking beyond the back of the textbook for things that engage students fully – head, heart, and hands. I suspect that the willingness to try new things as a teacher is the best indication of the thing’s actual potential as a game changer.

Hopefully this headline was followed up by a more nuanced article – it could happen!


Back to School with Making in the Classroom – Should I start now or wait?

You may have heard that it’s best to “ease” into hands-on project-based learning at the start of the school year. Maybe you feel your students aren’t ready, need some skills development, or just need to have a few weeks of settling down before getting started with more independent work.

Good teachers know that students learn a lot more when they get their hands on real materials, and get to do their own projects and experiments. But sometimes we get frustrated thinking about the students who won’t cooperate, don’t clean up, waste materials, or misbehave during our hands-on learning time. In my work as a science teacher and coach, I’ve seen teachers who decide to delay lab activities until behavior is rock-solid. Instead of starting off with a bang, they tiptoe toward inquiry learning.

from Teacher Magazine: Teaching Secrets: How to Maximize Hands-On Learning.

The author, Anthony Cody is an award-winning science teacher, and this article has some great ideas, tips and practical suggestions for all grades and subject areas. He goes on:

My experience is in science, but many teachers of social studies, English, math, and other subjects also have great success with hands-on, minds-on activities. I’d bet some of my colleagues in these other content areas also feel the urge to keep kids in lockdown mode until full teacher authority has been established.

I think this is a big mistake.

Here are his reasons:

  • You need to lead with your best foot.
  • When you introduce cool activities the first few weeks, you are setting the stage for an exciting year.

Be sure to read his full explanation and tips for getting the school year started off right with hands-on. Teaching Secrets: How to Maximize Hands-On Learning.

I’m also sure that many teachers feel that they have students who aren’t “ready” for a more independent approach to learning. However, how will they get ready if they don’t practice it? Many teachers tell me that students have to be “unschooled” out of practices like constantly expecting to be told what to do. So why not start to build those habits and expectations on day one?

That doesn’t mean that you have to start with a monumental project. Start with something small. Give the students time to explore, invent, and tinker sooner rather than wait. If it’s chaos, you can add some constraints, but don’t give up! Give them time to learn the tools you want them to get good at with smaller, more contained projects that will build their confidence and skills.

Empowering students to believe in themselves as capable of making things that matter, both in the physical and digital world, is a crucial part of learning.

So whatever you call it, making, project-based learning, hands-on, or inquiry learning – the time to start is always NOW!

What if… those helpful instructions aren’t so helpful

My last post linked to a video showing Dr. Paulo Blikstein of Stanford University showcasing the research going on in his department regarding how making becomes learning.

The next question is what to do when faced with early research? Do we just wait until the research is done? Or maybe even validated with other studies?

I don’t believe this.

I want to know, “What if these early findings are true? Would it change my practice? What would it look like in my classroom or school?”

Let’s just take one of the research questions being asked – Do detailed instructions help or hinder student understanding? What is the difference between a learner who is given step-by-step instructions vs. being given time to explore a new technology? It is often assumed that the way to learn something new is to follow explicit directions for a couple of tries, and then eventually do it on your own.

The early research is showing, however, that students who are given explicit instructions do NOT move to not needing those instructions. They stay “stuck” in a habit of depending on  instructions.

Uh oh. As someone who works with teachers learning new technology, what should I do? Should I hide my handouts? Make them less explicit? I don’t know, but I’m sure thinking about it.

Maybe you are thinking about this with your students. Why not do a little experiment? If you give students detailed instructions “just to get them started” on early project work – why not see what happens if you skip the tutorials and hide the handouts? After some early confusion (where you will have to refrain from jumping in with the rescue) you may see new patterns emerging.

I know I’m not waiting around for the perfect research to happen. I want to find out the “what if…” sooner rather than later.

Announcing – Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

book coverSo some of you may have noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet here lately. All my writing energy has been going to a good cause though! I’m happy to announce a new book: Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, authored jointly by yours truly,  Sylvia Martinez, and Gary Stager.

This book has been cooking a long time, fueled by our belief that many schools are heading away from what real learning looks like – projects that are student-centered, hands-on, and authentic. But there is a technology revolution out there that has the potential to change that. New materials and technology can be game-changers: things like 3D printing, microcomputers like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, sensors and interfaces that connect the physical world to the digital, and programming. At the same time, a vibrant “maker movement” is spreading worldwide, encouraging people to make, tinker, and share technology and craft.

Invent To Learn is for educators who want to learn about these new technologies and how they can work in real classrooms. But it’s not just about “stuff” – we explore teaching, learning, and how to shape the learning environment. By combining the maker ethos with what we know about how children really learn, we can create classrooms that are alive with creativity and “objects to think with” that will permanently change education.

Student leadership
One chapter of Invent To Learn is about how learning by doing also gives students a chance to become leaders in their schools and communities. Giving students access to modern creativity tools and technology is not about “jobs of the future,” it’s about real learning NOW.

Making for every classroom budget
Even if you don’t have access to expensive (but increasingly affordable) hardware, every classroom can become a makerspace where kids and teachers learn together through direct experience with an assortment of high and low-tech materials. The potential range, breadth, power, complexity and beauty of projects has never been greater thanks to the amazing new tools, materials, ingenuity and playfulness you will encounter in this book.

Check the Invent To Learn website for information on getting the print or Kindle version of the book, and also about professional development for your district.

Powering Authentic Learning. The connection between PBL, design, technology, and empowerment

I keynoted the TiE 2013 conference in Western Massachusetts last week and presented on the topic of Powering Authentic Learning. I’ll post the slides in a bit, but it’s difficult to capture the whole presentation from just the slides.

What I tried to do is make the case for:

  1. Projects not just for younger students, but all ages.
  2. Projects as a way to allow multiple problem-solving and mastery styles.
  3. Playing the “Whole Game” (from Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education by David Perkins)
  4. Why technology has changed the design process, with an overview of the move from sequential design to spiral design methods.
  5. How computers support spiral design and also different problem solving styles and mastery styles.
  6. How spiral design can be adapted to the classroom and why it is so appropriate for children.
  7. Why all of this is important in the real world and jobs of today.
  8. How students can play a role in all of this, not just as objects to be changed, or workers, but as participants and co-creators of knowledge.
  9. How doing so actually supports teachers as they change to a more student-centered, project-based classroom structure.

I think I tried to put too much into the hour, but I’m so excited by all of these ideas and how computers can be used to really engage and inspire young people to do work that is powerful and meaningful.


2012 Most Popular Posts

It’s that time of year again! Here are the most popular posts (according to WordPress, anyway) from the blog.

  1. Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
  2. Games that encourage student teamwork and collaboration
  3. Happy Birthday Logo!
  4. 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab
  5. Engagement, responsibility and trust
  6. Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education
  7. Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
  8. Back to school – games for collaboration and teamwork
  9. Compare and contrast: using computers to improve math education
  10. Treasure trove for constructivist classroom projects

These are a mixed lot – for example, #3, “Happy Birthday Logo!” is about the 40th anniversary of the Logo programming language. As much as I’d like to believe that there is a massive resurgence of interest in children programming in Logo, it’s MUCH more likely that people are searching for birthday clip-art and stumble on this post. It’s also the case that for #6, “Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education” the mere mention of the immensely popular game “Halo” drives a lot of traffic. There are some interesting statistics in that post comparing the sales figures of Halo to the expectations for educational software, but I’m assuming that’s not the primary draw.

However, the traffic for #2, 4, 8, and 10, are all pretty on target. I believe that these articles do reflect interest in constructivism and a yearning for information about how to make classroom activities more authentic. I can see that the time spent on these articles by the “average” visitor is much higher. Someday I’ll get around to calculating a different popularity metric for my posts, something like page views  multiplied by viewing time so that the really popular posts reflect viewer interest, rather than just Google searches gone astray.

And of course, two of my Khan Academy posts made the top ten. The debate about Khan Academy is still going on strong, and has made it into the mainstream of American mass media. Although it’s nice when an educational topic does make it into the mainstream, it’s not so good when it reinforces the blandest and least interesting  teaching myths. Oh well, I suppose we could all be reading more about the Kardashians!


Project-based learning explained – video

Another video from the nice folks at Common Craft:
Project Based Learning Explained

Other project based learning resources:

Like this video? There are lots more online explaining everything from Twitter to RSS at Common Craft.

Bonus idea: Why this is a great model for students to make their own videos


New podcast from Radio TICAL – bringing student voice into ed tech

Involving students as partners and co-learners in the educational process, rather than as consumers—or worse, as “objects”—is not a new concept but it is certainly gaining currency in the 21st century. With information exploding, teachers can no longer hope to know everything about their subject. With changes in student lifestyles, fewer and fewer of them are content to be passive participants in the classroom.

GenYES is remarkable in how it brings student voice into the learning conversation. In this episode, Sylvia Martinez, President of GenYES, describes the project’s original program for bringing students and teachers together to co-plan technology-infused lessons as well as a newer program, TechYES, which offers a unique project-based learning approach to certifying middle school students as technologically literate.

via Radio TICAL.

Yup, that’s me, in a podcast recorded with Michael Simkins of  the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership (TICAL). It’s the “go to” place for California school administrators who want to understand how to integrate technology in their schools. TICAL offers resources and networking opportunities both online and in person.

Direct podcast link (MP3)