Constructing Modern Knowledge, Tinkering, Homework, and What I’ve Learned


I have actually started this post a number of times in my head. I am not sure why it has been hard for me to get out, but it has. I am glad that it has. That just means I have been pondering it, and we all know when I ponder it’s a good thing. Right?

Let me set up quickly what has been fascinating about it. My son asked to spend a week at Camp Invention in Coppell, TX. We wondered what it would be like for him since it was sponsored by the US Patent Office and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He spent the week tinkering. He loved it and learned tons about thinking his way through processes. Then I headed off to New Hampshire and a week with Gary Stager, Sylvia Martinez, Paul R. Wood, Peter H. Reynolds, and Alfie Kohn just to name a few at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Conference. What the week boiled down to for me was about giving kids time to tinker and learn. I returned home for a few days and then headed to Austin for Thinkfinity training. First site that pops up for me during the investigation time? Yep, more tinkering: Invention at Play.

Now, I’m not going to go to the extremes like some and say the entire day should be letting the kids tinker. There has to be direct instruction for them to build their learning from. What I will say, though, is that kids DO need time to tinker (I say tinker because play just doesn’t cut it even though the kids will think they are playing). They do some of their best learning while tinkering and exploring. Why can we not give them concepts and send them to the Lego bins to come back with a contraption that demonstrates the concept learned? Application is a much higher level than just comprehension, and create is the HIGHEST level of the new Bloom’s chart. We as educators have always said that if you can teach it effectively, then you understand it. Why not let the kids take a concept, create something with that knowledge, and then teach it to the class sharing why it is applicable to what they designed and built?

Does this take time away from direct instruction? Sure, but isn’t the learning at a deeper level allowing us to not have to reteach the concept again and again? Besides, when a student asks about the concept later in the school year, some other student in the class is going to say, “Remember?! That is when so and so built the ____ and_____.” Get it? The kids are making the learning connections and reteaching each other. Sound like real life? It’s getting there. I would say it would benefit our kids much more and prepare them for the Dell’s, Eastman’s, militaries, and Apple’s of the world to hire folks who have spent time trying out things, failing, rethinking, retrying, failing, rethinking, retrying, … You get the picture. Shall we bring up Google’s 20% rule of employment once again? Sounds like it should be a mantra for education (for students and teachers).

Now, one thing that struck me as odd at Constructing Modern Knowledge was my reaction to Alfie Kohn. Many consider him a great mind in education. My less than enthusiastic reaction wasn’t due to the fact that he failed to answer a simple question about his college degree (I asked what it was in and he told me it would take too long to explain. What?!?). It was more on the fact that, while he has great ideas, he fails to recognize how the system works (or more likely refuses to accept). The gist of his argument is that teachers created the system we are in and are the only ones who can fix it.

Well, not exactly. Neither of us can argue the other in the ground over it because it is from opinions based on a number of facts that we draw our views. My view is that teachers did not make the problem. We followed the law that told us to prepare students for tests that the state would be giving students. How we respond to that law controls how we teach in our classrooms. Some lend themselves to a more test-prep environment, while others have a more open structure where students do more authentic work with less worksheets involved.  But, nonetheless, we are following the law here. Not giving the tests is NOT an option if we wish to maintain employment.

Alfie’s view seems to be that if teachers just decide to change, then the system will be forced to change. Uhm, idealist? In my view, yes. Alfie says that those of us who praise our students for doing well on these tests are just adding to the problem. Yeah, I did not like that comment either. Instead, he feels we should ask the student…ready for this… “So how do you feel (or what do you think) about your grade?” My complimenting the student is doing harm while his analyzing them like a psychiatrist is good? Really? I hear his parenting books are built around this same type of concept. I do not think I will be buying or reading them anytime soon. I like the way my wife and I parent just fine. To turn our son into some walking research project just doesn’t do anything for me.

Let me say that Alfie’s views of what should happen in the learning realm of the classroom are pretty strong. I disagree with his view on homework where he boldly states that there has NEVER been research that shows that homework is beneficial. I am guessing these items do not count as research to him (personal note: Glad to see Marzano agrees with me that Kohn misrepresents the research findings). One of those links even researched the research and found that out of twenty studies completed on the effectiveness of homework, fourteen showed benefit while only six did not.  I do want to state that I think a little homework is good, though. Twenty math problems over the same concept is too much if the same can be done in five. If the kid is getting the five wrong, why keep adding to the problem with fifteen more? At the same time, five problems is enough to know whether the students gets it or not.  Reading self-selected pieces of literature for ten or fifteen minutes a night is a good thing. Minimum numbers of AR tests (or points or whatever) per week is not. And so on. You get the drift.  Basically, hours of homework every night is ridiculous, but limited practice of subjects is not. Let’s just not let it take over the family life. No, I have no intention of getting into a debate with Alfie about these things. I am just reflecting on what I heard and my views in comparison. I have a job and family to attend to. Spending countless hours (more) finding ammunition for a debate that will effectively go nowhere is a waste of both of our times.  He is obviously set and secure in his opinion. Same here. Moving on.


But what Alfie says about kids needing time to explore the concepts they have learned (with thinkering and such) is spot on. We learn more when we have that type of time. If we choose the object, then we are going to be more engrossed in the learning that goes with it. Deeper levels of learning, too.

So what did I get out of all of my weeks of travel in July and early August? How about this:

  • Gary Stager’s favorite phrase is, “So what?”
  • His views on ANYTHING can upset anyone with thin skin, but he does it to make you think more deeply.
  • He and Sylvia have a lot of Legos.
  • Lego Robotics make great learning tools outside of the competitions many students enter. Just unstructure the learning around them and turn the kids loose.
  • Alfie Kohn has some good ideas on student learning (overlooking the homework issue here) and some warped views on child rearing (IMHO) and student motivation.
  • He also thinks teachers control the entire education world. That will only happen when teachers start voting en masse.
  • Peter H. Reynolds is one awesome dude. I would love to have him visit our students in person or virtually. He has an amazing talent and a wonderful personality the students and teachers will love.
  • I wish Peter spent a few hours teaching us to be artists even when we think we are not. Release the right brain, folks.
  • John Stetson is one very bright person. It was good to have someone around who knows gear ratios like the back of his hand.
  • Dr. Cynthia Solomon (from OLPC fame) is one of my new favorite people. Ever. She is like a female Gary Stager with a grandma’s personna (don’t be mad, Cynthia). Her quick wit, challenging questions, and wonderful insight make her one great person to be around. Besides, sarcasm befits a Harvard grad.
  • The most important take away is that we MUST give our students more time to tinker and think their way through the learning and creative processes. It will take time for them to get use to the opportunity, but they will hate it if you take it away. Consider it. If we go from no time to even one hour a week, it will be progress.

I look forward to my continuing conversations with the great folks I met at all of these events. Sylvia and I already have a few plans in the works to better prepare our middle school science students through reflecting on their learning in a meaningful manner. I cannot wait to share that project as we move through it. I expect Gary will throw in a few “So what?” ‘s just to drive me forward even more. In fact, I count on it.

Image Credits:
I took them all at the MIT Museum – 1. Great Wall of Ideas 2. Mantra for the Great Wall of Ideas 3. Hologram at MIT Museum

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Drowning in Rice and Other Deep Subjects From CMK 08

Thinking. It is the one thing all of us either don’t do, take too little time to do, don’t have the time to do, or just plain don’t know how to do. So how are we expected to put more time into an already tight school day schedule.

This and more is part of our quest for knowledge at the Constructing Modern Knowledge conference here in New Hampshire. Our first day was loaded with theory, shared wisdom, and even some practice.

Paul Wood and I visited the MIT Museum on Sunday with Gary Stager. Among the things we found were some truly awesome feats of engineering from Arthur Ganson. An incredible thinker and visionary himself, Ganson had multitudes of examples of his “tinkering” on display. When you look at these items of work, you might wonder why someone would spend so much time creating these little glorified table decorations. Some might say, “Why?” I say, “Why not?”

The physics, engineering, math, research, and above all, thinking involved in these pieces of work is astounding. One can look at each and decide it is a simple machine. True enough. But what is so simple about the entire process from vision to creation? Not a whole heck of a lot. Take a look at some of these things in the short videos I shot:

These babies are like throwback to what I did with Legos, but I didn’t have the motors and, oh yeah, Ganson’s worked. But, now I’m an adult who can think, and by golly I want to make one of my own. So, when it came time to “tinker” during the exploration appointment of the day, Paul and I decided we wanted to replicate the rice river piece utilizing the Lego robotics kits, some rice, and a handkerchief. This is what you get with a couple of southern folks get together and attempt to think really hard (pics and video):

Videos:

So there you have it. Three minds, a few cups of rice, a hanky, and some Legos. One simple machine. Maybe we made Ganson proud. Maybe not. But what I do know is that we thought our way through this entire process as a group, out loud, internally, through trial and error, with outside comments, and with pride.

We thought.
We designed.
We created.
We thought some more.
We redesigned and recreated.
And then we thought some more.

Yep. It was a wonderful day, and I’m pooped. Can’t wait until tomorrow. We promised Tally from Israel that we would do whatever project she has dreamed up tomorrow. We might need to rethink that decision. That girl is some kind of smart.