Communication & Conditioning
Last semester, I threw a couple of Communication Challenges at my students. My plan was for these to be an escalating series of tasks that would push them from the normative 7th grade view of signaling (hand written notes and mobile video chat, with a vast emptiness in-between) into something that approached a continuum. I hoped it was going to be my sneaky way of making entire idea of a serial protocol into an essential idea.
And it…kinda worked. We ran three of them before building the 3D printer started to eat every Makers class. But in every challenge, I faced a choice of either allowing a hyper reductive physical solution or piling on more arbitrary/adult restrictions to the problem.
This year, I have two classes that each have more students than the previous 3 semesters of Makers combined. At this scale, I’ve been struggling to have the classes cohere into productive subgroups around a challenge. 45 minutes just isn’t long enough to bring students into a new challenge, let them flail at it long enough that the force of their effort settles them into “natural” groups. So, for this, I resorted to one of the corrosive team assignment tools in my middle school toolkit.
To cope with the larger class, I needed larger groups which suggested a layered challenge. So this year it’s a message relay. Stations A and B are reasonably close, but on opposite sides of our facilities barn to prevent for visual contact. B and C can see each other, on a clear day, but are separated by several athletic fields which may or may not be filled with 3rd graders.
Instead of a collection of Pinky & the Brain quotes, the message is a statement structure with some variable nouns. Last time the absolutely fixed vocabulary meant that students built systems to transmit a single number. I had hoped this would push those returning students a bit further.
I’m writing this in the nadir of #makered achievement. I’ve presented a challenge and then tried to shut up. I’ve watched two classes stumble through innumerable plans to move a physical message between stations. Lots of plans for whatever sport-ball they hope will cover the distance best, or rockets or giant ramps to roll a ball across the entire field. One group is building a PCV and Milkcrate sled to haul an 8 word sentence across the field.
Basically, I’m writing this at the moment where I (and possibly they) are convinced that nothing will work.
I’ve tried to build the challenge with a set of game-like restrictions that quietly discourage certain approaches. Other teams are spectators, and if one of the observers learns the message then… then we all frown? This is also where I see kids looking for the bedrock of grades. Until there’s an awesome example of could be produced, the middle school instinct is to worry about what they HAVE to produce. When schools rely on threats of force, especially abstracted and mediated threats like grades, we create young people who are always looking for the hidden whip.
So I’m distracting myself by building stupid door triggered LEDs and other nonsense, basically trying to fill the classroom environment with concrete bits of the possible. The ugly, slapdash possible.
I think these struggles fit under that umbrella. In my first Makers post-mortem I bemoaned that my decade of experience prodding everyone through the same borderline dull material at roughly the same pace was largely useless to me in Makers. Two years in, I’m struck by how many of those tools are shortcuts that strip agency and choice away from students in order to keep the classroom machine humming. Classroom management systems, even ones I respect like Developmental Designs, are systems that condition students into automatic/unthinking response. Working within a traditional school day makes some measure of conditioning convenient, if not absolutely necessary. But each semester makes me more aware of what I give up, and what I force my students to give away, with those choices.