​Do, Design, Discover: Educators Relearn How to Play

​Do, Design, Discover: Educators Relearn How to Play

Charley Locke

On Friday afternoon, in the library of Castilleja School in Palo Alto, 52 students sat in their assigned groups and snacked on cookies. As Angi Chau called them up, each team presented the project they had prepared over the past two days. One group explained its interactive quiz about characters in A Jar of Dreams by Yoshiko Ushida, which used LED lights to highlight correct answers. Another group demonstrated how its name tags would help strangers quickly engage and discover common interests, using timed lights and a rotating display.

Angi Chau, Director of Castilleja’s Bourn Idea Lab, is no typical teacher, and neither are her students. The eager presenters consisted of educators and administrators from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, representing independent, charter, and public schools in the Bay Area, Southern California, Washington State, Massachusetts, New York, and Hawaii. They had come for Design, Do, Discover 2014, a two-day workshop on implementing hands-on learning in the classroom, co-presented by Castilleja School and Marymount School, two private all-girls schools.

In the workshop, participants used tools in the versatile Bourn Idea Lab to work on group projects addressing a question of their own creation. Their concerns spoke to the central ideas of making in the classroom: How can we get students to connect with data? How can we encourage students to demonstrate their learned information to others? How can we incorporate creating into a subject that doesn’t intrinsically have making as an element?

The mock-classroom organization of the workshop--designing a response to a question posed by the students themselves--resonated with educators. “I think this is a great model for bringing making to a classroom, starting out with a ‘why’ and then going backwards,” said Clint Johns, who teaches computer science and robotics at Sacred Heart School in Atherton, California. “Then the students are more involved, more personally motivated.”

The model certainly worked well for these students. On Thursday, the educators were dispersed across two classrooms, the library, and the Bourn Idea Lab. Chau led a seminar on “Arduino and Other Microcontrollers,” giving advice to the participants about their projects and about how to teach the technologies to younger students.

Lindsey Own, a workshop session leader who teaches science to sixth and seventh graders at the Evergreen School in Shoreline, Washington, was using Arduino to create her project. Her group came up with an assignment for students to learn about a technological development, and explore how it changed history by creating a time capsule from the future. For Own’s part of the project, she asked, “How might the outcome of the Revolutionary War have been different with different medical technology?” She created a prototype of a crutch from the future, complete with an Arduino motion sensor that reacted to noise, warning the user of a sudden fall.

While Chau and Own worked with Arduino, Diego Fonstad, who holds the enviable title of Resident Tinkerer at the Bourn Lab, explained the theory of making in Classroom 207 upstairs. “We all have Swiss cheese memory when it comes to rote memorization,” he argued. “But facts that we truly engage with through projects, we really remember.”

Within the theory of making, Fonstad distinguished between “props” for teaching, which cover specific material for foundational learning, and “prompts” for exploration, which enable students to delve into personally interesting ideas. Making enables students to better understand and interact with historical concepts, and also equips them to pursue their own projects. Fonstad cited a seventh grade class where students learned how to build simple, functional microscopes. “When there’s a teaching microscope in future classrooms, they’ll be able to troubleshoot,” he explained.

Fonstad also spoke about how making, often associated with cutting-edge technologies like the laser cutter and 3D printer in the Bourn Idea Lab, can encourage old-school self-reliance. He sees today’s students as products of “a generation and a half of not making,” tracing back to the rise of ready-made mass-production after World War II. Speaking about students today, many of whom are far removed from the do-it-yourself resourcefulness that defined early America, Fonstad said, “If I gave them a kit of how to build a car, at least a third of them would glue the wheels to the car. They don’t get that you need the axle to make the wheel spin.” By building their own microscopes--by making--students will not only learn about the particular technology, but the theories of how things work more generally.

Aaron Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab and Science Coordinator at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland and workshop session leader and participant, agreed. “Often, people focus on the stuff, rather than the thinking and teaching,” he explained. “The real learning isn’t about a 3D printer or a laser cutter, it’s about opening a door to a hobby, to an attitude.”

Many of the educators tried to address this problem of attitude in the focus of their group projects. Ceres Madoo, who teaches art at Marymount High School in Los Angeles, voiced a frustration that resonated with a number of the participants. “Kids are deciding on one project or idea before exploring other options,” explained Madoo. Fonstad described this intellectual rigidity as “triage mode.” Students, who feel they can’t afford to experiment or make mistakes, allocate time to assignments based on college admissions or standardized testing rather than personal interest.

Madoo’s team hoped to “reintroduce play” into the classroom through random spinners, prompting students to unconventional artistic pairings, like a watercolor abstract of lungs, or a pop-art collage of intestines.

Advocates of design and making in the classroom often point to a deeper understanding of the material and a sense of entrepreneurship, increasingly important values for modern success. But another benefit of making in the classroom--bringing play back into education--clearly struck a chord with these educators. Hopefully, by prompting participants to be students themselves, this making workshop will help educators re-teach their students how to play.

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