Recently many of our Year Six students have been involved in projects that require them to utilise the brain of a maker. Facing challenges involving the exploration of how everyday objects are manufactured and while responding to their ‘Genius Hour’ ambitions they are facing a new set of problems and discovering the joy that comes from solving these with their hands as much as their brains.
The shift back towards a recognition of the importance of making is an interesting phenomenon to observe. Children have always enjoyed opportunities to make and through this explore ideas and solve problems. Today framed as a Maker Movement it is easy to forget this long tradition that led to the global success of companies such as Lego and Meccano. In part this movement comes from the emergence of new tools that elevate the options available to makers above what was previously possible into a realm of quasi-production. Digital tools, small-scale computers and open source software combined with 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC machines bring new options and exciting possibilities. However, even without the fancy new tools students can learn a great deal when they are offered opportunities to explore a makers mindset.
Seymour Papert, seen by many as the father of the modern Maker Movement, had it right when he wrote ‘The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge’. This captures the nature of the challenge we have faced as a group of teachers in designing a project where students would explore every-day objects; we had no idea what they might choose or how they may interact with their items but the task certainly provided the conditions for invention. Our students were given the following instructions at the start of the unit:
Using a Collaborative Inquiry process you will analyse a product that you use and consider the many decisions and processes that went into creating that item. Having analysed your chosen products and shared your knowledge with an audience, you will apply a design thinking method to develop improved and enhanced designs based on the original product that demonstrates your understanding of product design.
With that we let the students at it and over the next few days they selected their products. We did set some conditions to avoid students wanting to disassemble expensive home-goods or anything potentially dangerous. In the end the ultimate challenge was to submit their modified designs to the manufacturers of the original item and this proved to be a significant motivator towards quality and carefully considered designs.
The diversity of products discussed as possible candidates was immense and we soon had many small groups of students collaborating around the tasks of disassembling their products and determining, from the clues they found combined with access to the internet, how the product might have been manufactured. This introduced some special moments for learning that present differently when a maker mindset is applied. None of us knew how to disassemble a padlock, how the eyes on a teddy bear were applied or the best way to access the innards of an alarm clock. Immediately it became obvious that both students and teachers were learning and problem solving together. Interactions between group members and teachers centred around ‘What if . . ?’ and ‘How might . . ?’ questions. Trial and error became the norm.
This was the point where the immediacy of feedback inherent to making tasks came to the fore. Imagine a strategy, test it, does it work? If not try a different strategy. This immediacy of feedback not from a teacher but from the task itself allows for rapid iteration and with no value judgement associated with the feedback fear of failure rapidly dissolves; either your plan works or it doesn’t. The second element that ensured success was that the students were highly engaged by the challenges they faced. They had been given choice in the articles they explored, choice in how they would explore the items and choice in how they would share their learning. They were working collaboratively with their classmates but also with their teachers. Realising your teacher is just as stuck as you are turned out to be a powerful motivator towards resilience.
A more extensive version of the process has occurred for many of the students as they work to complete their ‘Genius Hour’ projects. For this students have developed intricate plans linked to their personal passions and some of these have involved the design and construction of new products. We have a room full of seamstresses discovering a myriad of problems associated with the making of dresses, learning to think inside out and remembering clothing needs to come on and off. Other students have been shaping timber for skateboards and billy-carts. Solving the problems of steering and braking has led to a mix of novel solutions. Another student has decided to craft a set of shin-pads using a design that utilises foam embedded with in fiberglass to provide better protection. Many of these students are exploring tasks that their teachers have almost no experience with and as a result we are learning together. Our combined thinking skills have been challenged, we have had to think in new ways about the resources we have at our disposal and call on expertise from outside the classroom. Often the best solution has been one offered by the students as they dive into the challenge they have set for themselves. For the teachers one of the best parts of this unit has been the puzzled looks shared between all involved and then the joy when a plan shows signs of working.
When given opportunities to reflect on their learning the students have been overwhelmingly positive about the experience. Even when things have not worked for the most part they have remained resilient and enthused by their learning. They have risen to the challenge and now as we near the finish line are enjoying the fruits of their labours. We have all learned a great deal this semester and much more than how a padlock works, how to size a dress or how to mould fiberglass. The true learning has been linked to how we might approach new learning situations in the future, how we might solve problems we have never encountered before and that we can trust in our ability to cope when we are stuck. If as Jean Piaget claims 'Intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do’ then we have all made good use of ours.
By Nigel Coutts