Recently I have been thinking about the role I play in encouraging my students to think and to trust in themselves as capable learners. This is largely due to the topic of our Term Four Unit of Inquiry. In essence we don’t have one, instead we allow the students to spend their final term in Junior School committed to a project of their design. We call this a Personal Passion Project, students call it a chance to do what they have always wanted to do. It does result in some projects that go far beyond the expertise of the average primary school teacher and although our students are working at the edge of their personal comfort zones their teachers are often far from theirs. Some of the conversations I have had stand out as examples of how to foster learning and engagement in these situations.
One of the boys has decided to take on the task of designing a surfboard and having a model of it 3D Printed. A visit to a local manufacturer who uses an innovative CNC based approach to designing surfboards inspired this student to apply the same approach to his project. He has done a great job so far but struck a problem when it came to finessing the shape of his board and including a delicate curve at the front. He came to me with this problem and assessed against the conventional model of the teacher, I was useless. I have no experience with the software he is using and have always found drawing in 3D with a computer a task that tests my very limited drawing skills. My answer was “Sorry, I really don’t know”. I went on to explain how I find working with 3D drawings on a computer difficult and that I was genuinely impressed by what he had already achieved. I did offer some advice; I described what I do when I am stuck with a piece of software and described a scenario where just as he was stuck I had encountered a problem I couldn’t solve. We chatted about various sources of tips and ideas for video tutorials that might help him move forward. I hope I provided enough support to allow him to problem solve his way to a solution and that he walked away confident that at least one person believed in his ability to do just that.
A conversation with a colleague convinced me of the merits of this approach. This teacher runs an Innovative Technology Lab full of laser cutters, 3D printers and vacuum forming machines. He has in place a set of essential rules linked to safety and respect for self, others and the equipment. Beyond these non-negotiable rules he lets his students make all sorts of mistakes. Not every product that leaves his room is perfect, in many cases a trained professional could have produced a better finish in less time. He understands though that his role is to present situations to his students through which they learn to problem solve, to think and to gain confidence in their abilities to do so. Often it would be easy to step in and take over an operation, to let the students watch and learn the process but this would miss the point, in most cases the process of creating that single do-dad for his classes doesn’t matter as much as the real learning that they will take with them into the world beyond school.
Another group of students have decided to focus their efforts on designing a computer game. They are using Unity as a game development platform with a little C# thrown in for coding behaviours for the objects they create. They are going far beyond the level of coding typical for a Year Six curriculum but not beyond what they are comfortable with. If I were teaching them to code they would be bored and stifled by the limits of my knowledge and comfort. As a small group of collaborators they are extending each other’s knowledge and solving problems without even realising they are, it is all just fun and a very natural way to learn.
In the past I may have doubted the wisdom in the approach taken to each set of students. What convinced me that this is a worthy approach is the work of Sugata Mitra. This provides the evidence that when students are presented with the right environment and just enough support they are able to achieve learning goals not achievable in other ways. A key part of this approach is what he refers to as the role of the Grandmother. As a young learner I was lucky to have just such a grandmother, one who encouraged me with kind words and never ending confidence in me but who seldom provided solutions to the problems we discussed. In helping students with their Personal Passion Projects I feel I have been able to step into this role and in doing so have encouraged my students towards a deeper learning, a learning that will last and in which they are the driving force not me. I have also gained confidence in this approach by sharing stories with colleagues who are able to report similar success and lastly I have seen students confidently collaborate far beyond the expectations of the syllabus because they have been allowed to.