Tie And Jeans

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.

MakerEd chat is tonight, and Laura suggested talking about classroom management in #makered

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.


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6 thoughts on “Communication & Conditioning

  1. Great post! Would you be willing to post it at Inquire Within, a collaborative blog about inquiry learning? You’d be a valuable contributor! http://inquiryblog.wordpress.com/about/

    • tieandjeans on said:

      Sure! I’m not a great small team collaborator, because my first attention goes to in-school posting or here, but I’m always happy to share and repost. Send email to andrewcarle AT gmail with details or syndication instructions.

  2. I feel the same with learning center…the structure is about to break. Now we need it to break in a way that gets to what we want out of learning. DD/advisory is a great addition, but 45 min classes are going in the wrong direction. Incremental change gets more comfort and buy-in, but never really changes things, just “fixes”.
    Fight the good fight :)

  3. Oh gods, this sounds familiar. “sports ball-based message transmission” sounds a lot like “duct tape wrapped around a mini football and flung down a hallway. Which is what happens when *I* tried to replicate your communications game for one of our classes here.

    It’s part of the reason I’ve moved toward teaching graphic design and sewing. Here, at least, are two programs where you don’t get visible, obvious results unless you put pen to paper or fabric under the presser foot.

    The worst part about that communication game, or the other one I did with calculating degrees of a circle, is that *I* knew they were failures. So did the teachers whose class I did them for. But the teacher was the one who had to do spin control and talk down the parents. Both games are fixable… With more playtesting. But no one really wants me to try these activities again.

    And I think it shows an underlying challenge for maker-ed and design-thinking approaches in traditional schools: that hidden whip is held over students by teachers, over teachers by administrators, and over administrators by teachers and boards. The maker-ed instructors get chosen because they’re familiar with traditional instruction, but also know enough of the craft disciplines to teach those — and yet knowledge of a craft is not enough by itself to train apprentices. Training apprentices is a different skill than teaching mathematics or history. How do we train to train apprentices? Train some, and learn from your mistakes. But the fear of failure is so great, that when we make mistakes… We lose the apprentices, and often the apprentices-in-the wings, too. . :-)

  4. Pingback: Communication Challenge 2 – Post Mortem | Tie And Jeans

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