Tie And Jeans

Learning Cycles

Last week, Josh Burker posted a picture of a MakeyMakey “violin” designed and built by one of his elementary students. It’s a great bit of prototyping, using stretched wire and a metal bow to trigger MakeyMakey inputs.

But this student wasn’t satisfied with a single sound per string, and Josh relayed that design challenge out to the #makered community.

(This post is a reflection about learning cycles and MakerEd. If you want to see the prototypes, read this instead.)

On one level, this call hits at the heart of why MakerEd has blossomed along with the growth of global learning communities. With cardboard, write and a $40 toy, an elementary student can move an idea out of her “invention journal” and into the real world. This means she can be simultaneously thrilled at her tangible accomplishment, and frustrated by the numerous limitations and compromises she’s made along the way. To iterate on that first object, she’ll need to incorporate some wholly new ideas into her intellectual framework. To complicate matters for the “just Google it” generation, she also lacks the language to describe or discover those new ideas.

Josh doesn’t have an academic background in electronics. However, he does have extensive experience taking on projects for which he doesn’t have a academic background. Josh knows that being a “life long learner” means also being a “life long beginner,” and has developed toolsets that help him address the common problems of beginning. One of tools is an expansive network of friends, colleagues and mentors.

I have a very poor academic background in electronics. However, I have experience working within a small corner of electronics problems and exposure to the wider field. Even when I can’t provide solutions, I can often help rephrase questions in language that will produce solutions.

This is the way that beginners learn, how they move into a new discipline and become novices, and then amateurs, and so on.

What starts to transform this student’s problem from a brick wall into an opportunity is her teachers’ skills and experience as a learner.

I think of this as a tide of questions flowing out. There’s another important set of skills that govern how the information flows back in.

There is an academic answer to this question. “You need to look at the board’s schematic and build or extend a voltage divider for each input.”

That should clear everything up

That should clear everything up

Depending on length, replies like this range from “look up these terms in the textbook” to “here’s the textbook on these terms.” But in no way to they offer a direct bridge to help the student move forward with their idea. I’ve made this mistake too many times with students, in math and Makers, where I’ve asserted the existence of firewood instead of starting a flame.

Growing up with cooking shows, I know there’s a trap at the other end of the helpfulness spectrum. “Mr. Pepin, I was wondering what I could cook with all these rutabagas?” “Well,I happen to have this tray of roasted rutabagas and porkbelly in the oven now!” Which is great if you’re hungry, but doesn’t actually help the person with a wheelbarrow full of rutabagas. Even providing a recipe can send the incorrect message. “I guess vegetarians can’t eat rutabagas.” When teachers do this in math or CS, we insist that students can learn by dissection, carefully examining this particular solution for tools and techniques that will suggest general principles. But when you’re a beginner, you often lack enough domain specific context to determine which ideas are load-bearing and which are ornamental.

While there’s satisfaction in executing a recipe or assembling a kit, it’s fundamentally different from building and improving your own design.

I don’t think there’s a universally appropriate midpoint between these two extremes. The teacher’s role is to use the information flowing in to craft the best solution for this beginner and this domain. Teachers get better at reading the needs of a learners over time, as well as building up a wider range of domain knowledge. Over time, learners get better at recognizing when they need more support or when the instruction becomes overbearing.

For the three of us dancing around this Scratch dobro, I’m finding the limitations of Twitter, Vine and WordPress to be helpful fences. Even in the rough prototype I built, there’s so many design choices! I keep my work ugly, so that no one can mistake it for a finished product. I know Josh will ask when he has a new batch of questions.

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