TalkingSTEM interview (part 1)

Part 1 of an interview I did with Koshi Dhingra on her blog, TalkingSTEM:

Conversation with Author of “Invent To Learn”

KD: How did you come to see the value of making, or inventing, as learning?  A little about your background….

My degree is in electrical engineering and I worked in aerospace for many years on the research and development of the GPS satellite navigation system. In that job I saw that the work we were doing had little relation to the “scientific method” as taught in schools. In fact, it was a lot more like my dad’s auto repair shop than it was to school science. After I had children, I became a video game developer and ended up as vice president of a software publishing company that also made educational games and software.

I found that I really enjoyed thinking about how learning happens, went back and got a masters in education, and became the president of an educational non-profit called Generation YES, that combined teaching students technology skills with service-learning. I saw first- hand not only how good young people were with technology, but also how students stepped up when given responsibility.

Several years ago, the Maker Movement started to get more attention world-wide, and I saw it not just as some cool new tools, but as a leading indicator of cultural change, a second industrial revolution, and a magnificent example of how the modern world learns to solve problems and share those solutions with everyone.

My co-author, Gary Stager and I decided that we could help build a bridge for educators and parents to see how this Maker Movement models good learning – exciting, engaging, and relevant learning. So we wrote Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

KD:  How do you see the maker movement connecting to classroom cultures?  How does it speak to Bloom’s revised taxonomy (see diagram below)?

To me, the maker movement is showcasing how learning really happens, and making the words of educational giants like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget come alive. Piaget said, “Knowledge is a consequence of experience.” You can’t “do” learning to a child – they must be active participants in the experience. The maker movement brings us fabulous tools and materials that support all kinds of learning, and this supports a classroom that is vibrant and student-centered. The “get it done” attitude of the maker movement is a great mindset towards learning – that whatever the problem is, we can solve it, by working together and learning whatever we need to know to get it done.
bloomsI’m not a big fan of Bloom’s taxonomy, even the revised taxonomy. I think it’s horribly misused when it’s interpreted as a “ladder” or hierarchy of learning. It’s vague and misleading. I could argue every aspect of the terms and placement of some forms of learning as more complex, therefore superior to others. People also make the mistake of seeing this as a timeline – first the kids memorize things, then they show their understanding, etc. It’s the exact opposite of the kind of “maker” classroom I advocate where the “do” comes first, giving students something to build their learning on.

For example, let’s just take “creating” – supposedly the top of the tree. Why is this at the top? Sometimes when you create something, you then understand it better, not the other way around. You can create things without completely understanding them. In fact, the way I understand learning is that often it involves a deconstruction of previously held beliefs in order to accommodate more complex understandings.

I think that learning is much more iterative and fluid, and frameworks like this serve to constrain understanding how learning works, rather than celebrate its complexity.

KD: What should a parent, who does not have a tech background nor a lot of extra cash to buy expensive machinery or kits, do to go about building an environment where making is valued at home?  A teacher?  

I think that you follow the child’s interests and build upon them. Whenever possible, add complexity to what the child is doing, with conversations that involve prediction, measurement, analysis of any project. Cooking, for example, can become chemistry and mathematics, with authentic results that you can eat! Ask children to teach something to you and learn it together. Try not to say, “I’m so bad at math” or let your own fears become roadblocks to experimenting.

This is a list of parent roles in supporting children’s technological fluency from Stanford research[1]:

  • Teacher: teach new concepts
  • Learning broker: find and set up opportunities, connections, and activities
  • Project collaborator: work together
  • Resource provider: buy tools, books, materials
  • Employer: ask child to do a specific job or fix something
  • Learner: ask child to teach you something
  • Supporter: offer encouragement and advice

KD:  If one did want to buy a couple of high dollar items, which do you think one should start with?

I think that 3D printers have become synonymous with the maker movement, and sometimes divert attention from other technologies that might be a better place to start. Certainly, 3D printers are magical – literally making something out of nothing. And certainly they are getting faster, cheaper, and easier to use. However, unless the parent or teacher is really fascinated and willing to put in a lot of time with this technology, it’s probably not the best first choice.

I would look at microcontrollers like Arduino and Lilypad (for wearable computing). They are endlessly flexible, with a whole world of kits, parts, and communities supporting all kinds of experimentation. They involve programming, which I think is an essential skill for making sense of the world in the 21st century. They also can lead down so many paths, from musical instruments to robots to drones to electronics in clothes and textiles. There are kits and software combinations for all ages, even young children. We have lists of recommended products on our Invent To Learn website.

Part 2 to come!

[1] Barron, B. Martin, C, Takeuchi, L. & Fithian, R. (2009) Parents as learning partners and the development of technological fluency. International Journal of Learning and Media

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