Posts Tagged 'learning'

Is Making Learning? Considerations as education embraces the Maker Movement

Grinding New Lenses summer program at Depaul University.

Of late, folks in my corner of the educational world have been jazzed about the intersections of maker culture and education. I’m super excited too – and even pleasantly surprised. A couple of years ago the bigger trend in my world was about games and learning, and while that’s certainly not gone away, the prominence of the more open-ended, tinker-oriented maker work has had a serious surge lately.

Audrey Watters over at HackEducation called the Maker Movement one of the top ed-tech trends of 2012. The burgeoning ed-tech news aggregator EdSurge has managed a good deal of reporting on Maker and DIY learning amidst its usual grind of MOOC’s and Learning Management Systems. Mozilla has fully embraced the “making is learning” stance in positioning its Webmaker initiative, which I’ve written about before (and, full disclosure, contribute to on occasion). And my own lab here at Indiana University just last week publicly launched the Make-to-Learn initiative, a research focused collaboration including some fantastic organizations including MIT’s LifeLong Kindergarten Group, the National Writing Project, Instructables and the MacArthur Foundation, among others.

Clearly, making and learning is hot. And as with all things trendy, it’s easy for the core message to get lost amidst the hype. That’s why I want to (briefly) address a question any edu-hype-skeptic should be asking right now: Is making, in fact, learning? 

The short answer: yes, but it’s complicated. The longer answer is that the best maker-driven learning is never just about the making. It’s about all the things that happen around the making. That initial spark of curiosity, the investigation and early tinkering, the planning and research that follow, the inspirations and appropriations from other projects, the prototypes, the failures, the feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, the iterations upon iterations towards a better make. All of these acts are done in and contingent on well configured social contexts, in communities of practice and affinity spaces. This all goes back to core ideas of Constructionist learning theory and the foundational work of Seymor Papert. And it’s why I prefer talking about the Maker Movement as having strong lessons for learning, as opposed to just making, which can be construed as more solitary. Making in and of itself can sometimes involve the sorts of steps I described here, but not always. That’s why the answer is complicated. I’m willing to say that someone is always learning something when they’re making, but they learn best when it entails the sort of process, community and well configured structures of participation I describe above.

When I went to the Maker Faire last September, I wrote about how a revamped pinewood derby was set up in such a way that it embodied principles found in well designed learning environments. I talked about things like multi-generational engagement, clear contexts for using what’s being created, multiple avenues to success yet transparent and clearly defined standards. All of these things are about the interactions that are possible within a larger culture of making. Obviously, it’s the act of making that ties all of these interactions together, but the story around how the learning happens is always more complicated than the simplified idea that “making is learning”.

My sense is that so many of the folks taking up the making and learning mantle are nodding to all the things I’m saying here. These insights are obvious to anyone who thinks for more than a minute about what it means to be making in a way that might support robust learning via real world contexts. And the initiatives I’ve mentioned reflect this understanding. Mozilla is dedicated to creating a robust mentor community around Webmaker. The almost 25 thousand folks taking the MIT Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC will be getting a healthy dose of Papert as they learn about maker-oriented learning environments. And reading Audrey Watters’ recent post on the case for a campus Makerspace tells me that she gets what this is all about too. I just want to make sure we keep the complexity, nuance, and real power of this pedagogical approach in mind as we start to build a movement around it. It would be such a shame if we watered down the real power of maker-driven learning.

Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy

This past weekend I had the privilege of going to the World Maker Faire with my fellow colleagues from the Creativity Labs at Indiana University. Our lab is engaged in a number of efforts to envision intersections of the DIY and Maker sub-cultures and contemporary education, thinking about how these communities that have a strong focus on hands-on problem-solving, collaboration, arts and STEM might help us move teaching and learning forward.

The New York faire, held at the Hall of Science in Queens (a place I have fond memories of visiting as a kid), is in many ways chaotic and carnival-esque – dozens of tents dot the landscape of the museum grounds displaying everything from handmade robots that play basketball to PVC pipes configured to shoot marshmallows across a room. All manner of high and low tech can be found – 3D printers, woodcutting machines, sewing and embroidery stations, even a super-sized thumb-wresting apparatus. You can see some of the fun through the photos I took and at the Maker Faire site.


Nerdy Derby
Rather than talking about the whole fair from an educational standpoint, I want to focus one great example of how we can be inspired by the Maker movement: the Nerdy Derby. The Nerdy Derby is a reboot on the classic Pinewood Derby where people (usually kids) create handmade model cars and race them on wooden tracks. You can check out a neat little video of the derby below to get a sense of the experience.

The Nerdy Derby had a lot of features that I think we should include when we create well designed learning experiences for kids. I want to briefly take you through what I saw happening there from the perspective of good education and good learning.

  1. The Derby railsA Clear Context of Application - kids working on their derby cars in one part of the tent knew exactly why they were working on what they were working on. They could see, right across the tent, the real world space of the three competition rails where their work would be applied and judged. The problem they were trying to solve was made transparent by the design of the space.
  2. Multi-generational Creation and Collaboration – adults and kids worked together to tinker, hack and refine their derby car models. When kids got stuck, parents and folks running the derby were there to help out and assist in problem solving.
  3. Multiple Avenues to Success, but Clear Standards derby cars took many forms, and no one was there telling kids that their cars needed to look a certain way. Lots of different types of material resources were provided in the environment that let kids try out different approaches. At the same time, the kids couldn’t create just anything – the problem space they were in meant that there were standards for what would work and what wouldn’t. The design of the track, for example, made two wheeled vehicles impossible to race.
  4. Derby test railSafe Contexts for Testing – before kids moved their derby cars to the big leagues on the main rail, they were able to try out their models on test rails to see how they worked. Nobody expected that their cars would be perfect in this environment, and kids weren’t afraid to fail – after all, that’s what the test rails were for.
  5. Performance as Feedback - when derby cars were finally completed and they were ready to race one another, the context of application itself provided feedback – kids got to see how well their cars performed in relation to others. I even heard people making some hypothesis after a race about why a car performed in a certain way, information that could be used to change car designs.
  6. Opportunities for Iteration - after their cars were raced and they got that performance feedback, they could go back to the workspace to iterate on their designs, tweak them based on what they saw, and try them out again.

For me, one of the things that made this such a powerful learning environment is that all the feedback loops were tight – kids were able to see what they were going for, what counted as good participation, what resources were available. They were able to create based on this consequential information, test and refine, put their creations out there, learn from the experience and iterate all within this self-contained experience. Compare that to our current models of education – kids rarely understand why they’re working on something, their work so often has no actual application to even a fictional problem space, stakes are incredibly high and so testing and iteration are discouraged, and feedback is more often about telling kids how they did after long times scales (think tests) rather than being ongoing and on-demand while they’re involved in their work (like the test-rails in the derby).

This is only a small example of how the Make movement might inspire better pedagogy, but its clear contrast to what current classrooms look like is a testament to just how much room we have for improvement.

Thoughts on the Purpose of Education

Image

I recently had a great time chatting with Doug Belshaw, a colleague over in the UK, about the purpose of education. Among many other roles (including recently joining the Mozilla Learning team), Doug is the co-kickstarter of the purpos/ed project which aims to create a broader conversation around what the purpose of education is. This, in my opinion, is a fantastic project – so much of the discussion in the education world has baked in assumptions about what the purpose of education is, and too often these assumptions go unexamined. We can only do well by bringing them to the surface and engaging in robust debate around them.

Check out the post over on the purpos/ed, or listen to the interview below. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on what you think the purpose of education is, or should be.

“Reform” vs “Change”: Papert Reflects on the Education System, Technology and Culture

I just came across this wonderful little excerpt on The Daily Papert that I want to share. In it, constructionist learning theorist Seymour Papert reflects on his reading of the book Tinkering Towards Utopia, which describes the ways that the educational system has been amazingly resilient in the face of attempts at centralized, planned reform for over a century.

“My first reaction to Tinkering Towards Utopia was adversarial. I am convinced that education will undergo the kind of megachange that came in the wake of technological and scientific developments in areas such as medicine. Yet as Koschmann pointed out in the introduction to this section, although Tyack and Cuban present their work as analysis of the past, “the implication is plain that the prospects for any technology, … leading to radical change in our educational institutions appear quite bleak” (Koschmann & Kolodner, this issue, p. 399). One of us, it seemed at first sight, has to be wrong.

Only at first sight. Working on this review brought me the intellectual bonus of a better understanding of my own position by making explicit a simple distinction that has long lurked unformulated in the shadows of my intuitions: “Reform” and “change” are not synonymous. Tyack and Cuban clinched my belief that the prospects really are indeed bleak for deep change coming from deliberate attempts to impose a specific new form on education. However, some changes, arguably the most important ones in social cultural spheres, come about by evolution rather than by deliberate design — by what I am inspired by Dan Dennett (1994) to call “Darwinian design.” (2) For example, the concept of learning disability entered School in a manner more akin to the way that memes invade cultures than to the conduct of an education reform movement; institutionalization from above followed the cultural movement.

Examples closer to my focus here are to be found in the unintended effects on the classroom of the presence of computers in homes. The title of an article by Cuban (1992), “Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins,” refers to School’s defense mechanisms against reform being brought into the classroom by computers. School exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication — not only about computers but also about ways to learn and methods of research (Papert, 1996a).

With the evolution-reform distinction in mind, I found myself reading Tinkering Towards Utopia more sympathetically. I could now appreciate the elucidation of mechanisms by which the system systematically frustrates reform without feeling obliged to defend my own intellectual commitments. In fact, I could learn from it — the shift from a stance of reform to a stance of evolution does not exclude active intervention, but the role of the change agent becomes less like the architect or builder and more like the plant- or animal breeder whose interventions take the form of influencing processes that have their own dynamic. Tinkering Towards Utopia is a gold mine of insights into the dynamic of School’s defense mechanisms.

Nevertheless, a sense of residual discomfort lasted until I managed to formulate yet another respect in which Tinkering Towards Utopia says less than I first thought: The mechanisms described in it are concomitants rather than causes of the stability of School. Making this distinction will lead me to suggest that Tyack and Cuban are blinded to a deeper layer of explanation by a theoretical stance that looks deeply into the sociological processes at play in education while treating as a black box the actual content of what is being taught and (supposedly) learned.”

Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-427.

This is a wonderful little reflection for many of us that share Papert’s sentiments around the potentials of technology; to empower young people, to help shift towards pedagogical approaches that position young people as creators and knowledgable actors, to make learning built on tinkering and experimentation as opposed to skill and drill. Often I find myself worrying about how to best effect change in a complicated system – Papert’s words here remind me that my own hopes are buttressed by larger cultural shifts around how technology is currently being used. People, young and old, are engaging in a democratization of cultural, social and political life through media in ways that would scarcely be recognized even a couple of decades ago . In other words, culture is at our backs here. Instead of having to think of ourselves as change-makers in the form of “architects” or “builders”, as Papert says, we can contribute to  these larger cultural forces that are already unfolding, nudging them in fruitful directions. A good reminder for those of us that sometimes feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school

I have a confession to make. I’m learning. In school. No joke. I frame this as a confession because I’m someone who’s generally pretty hard on institutionalized education, and especially schools, and now I might have to go and revisit my stance a bit.

First, some background. I’m not one of those people that looks back on their school experiences, even those in higher ed, and feels like I was inspired, or particularly well equipped, to scale new intellectual, personal or professional heights. There are some small exceptions of course and probably some very positive aggregate effects, but looking back there are no teachers that really stand out as changing my trajectory, no courses that shook the foundations of what I thought my place was in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any “bad” experiences in school beyond feeling like high school sucked on a social level (but hey, who didn’t have that experience?), but I when I look at the other places that I’ve really learned in my life, it doesn’t really stack up in comparison.

When I think about the kind of learning in my life that was foundational and life changing on the intellectual, personal and professional level, I look outside of school. I look to life experiences of the informal variety. As I look back on my adult life, three places in particular strike me as the ones where I’ve learned the most: my meditation practice, my time living abroad in India, and my time working at the youth development organization Global Kids. And as I reflect on these experiences, I can see why I’m in a situation here in graduate school where I’m learning – in each of these areas I can see some quality that I’m now finding in my current experience.

I starting meditating when I was about 18. For me this has been part of a spiritual journey that I won’t go deeply into here (feel free to explore some other writings if you’re curious), but one that I will say has been meaningful and important for my development as a (at least somewhat) reflective, mindful and conscientious adult. This development has been grounded in the exploration of a practice; a continual refinement and commitment to a particular technique that has stayed with me through most of my adult life, evolving with me. Directly engaging in a practice, learning from others about how they practice, paying close attention to the contours of this particular practice, and, importantly, persistently applying the practice in new contexts and integrating new insights into it has unquestionably been one of the deepest (and at ten years, most ongoing) learning experiences I’ve had in my life.

I lived in India twice over the course of about two years, the first time more related to some of the interests I just mentioned, the second more related to my professional life (again, if curious, you can read the old blog I kept while living in Bombay). Beyond the particulars of first the study abroad program and then the NGO-based fellowship that I participated in, the big learning experience for me here was about cultural immersion. One of the unique things about living abroad is that it makes visible the taken for granted mechanisms of culture by exposing you to mechanisms wholly different from your own. In immersing myself in the drastically different culture of India, I came to see more clearly the contours of my own culture back home in the US. More generally, I learned how to experience and interpret the world through the lens of culture and see the critical role it plays in the learning process – how a given culture both structures our lives but also provides the basis for our own agency.

As my first extended professional experience, my time working at Global Kids has so many things that I can say about it in terms of my own learning to be a professional (and I have, if you’re again curious), but I’ll limit myself here. What I’d really like to focus on in terms of that experience is my immersion in work and a field that I feel passionately about. I came to Global Kids coming off of my second trip to India, with a deep commitment to working on issues related to human rights, though not really knowing very much about that area as a field. And Global Kids was an interesting place in terms of that – it isn’t a classic human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It’s a youth development organization that does education about human rights, and works with teens to foster their own identities as global citizens. Even more than that, my place within the organization, in it’s Online Leadership Program, put me in a position where I was exploring the question of how youth can be civically engaged through the lens of new media. This led me to become deeply engaged in the emerging field of Digital Media & Learning, and over the course of my time at Global Kids I became more immersed in that space through work on collaborative projects, presentation at conferences and development of a network of colleagues whose worked I respected. In this experience I came to understand what an impact working in a field that I’m passionate about has one my own learning, motivation and development.

Circling back – here I am in graduate school, and looking around me, I see practices, I see culture, and I see a field that I’m passionate about. And I see how these three components are intertwined in a way that supports my learning. I’m developing a set of distinct practices related to the investigation of questions of learning – they involve the application of theory, utilization of research methodologies, and development of analytic and argumentation techniques all used to produce new knowledge about the world. I’m surrounded by a productive culture that’s supportive of my development – one that’s inquisitive, innovative, experimental and rigorous in the ways that it engages with the questions it cares about. And I’m able to work on the things that I’m passionate about through the work I do in my courses, through the work I do in my lab, and through the interactions I have with the community around me.

I share all of this because I’m surprised. I’m surprised at the ways that I’m developing and learning in a formal education context and how different it feels from all of my other encounters with the formal educational system. I’m sharing my own experience as a learning scientist who’s researching informal learning spaces and technologies because he believes in their potential to help inspire new educational innovations, but finding, suddenly and surprisingly, that it’s wholly possible to have a robust learning experience in formal learning context that contains all the markers of the most effective informal learning I’ve experienced. The irony is not lost on me here.

In one sense the implications of this realization feel daunting – how can I look to my own positive experience with school and integrate that into my work as someone looking to transform education? Is it even possible to have a learning experience like this in an educational space that currently looks so drastically different, with classrooms that are increasingly under pressure from standardized tests, schools that look increasingly like prisons, and students who haven’t been encouraged to pursue their passions? In another sense, this insight it feels validating and empowering – it is possible to have a schooling experience that’s personally meaningful and robust in terms of learning. And I’ll just have to do the work to figure out what it means for my work as someone dedicated to good learning for all youth.

#DMLBadges and Shifting the Overton Window on Learning

On Thursday, the Fourth Annual Digital Media and Learning Competition was announced with much fanfare at a large event in DC that included Arne Duncan, a high up at NASA, and leaders in the industry, non-profit and foundation worlds. The theme for the competition: Badges for Lifelong Learning. On the competition website, it states “Badges are a new assessment tool that will help identify skills mastered in formal and informal settings, virtually and in physical spaces, and in schools, workplaces and communities.” The competition, then, is to explore the possibilities of innovation in this area to see if it has some legs.

The announcement and theme received what would generously be considered a mixed response, visible within the #dmlbadges hashtag on Twitter during the event and on the blogs of many smart people who raise important questions about the use of badges and tease out nuanced dimensions of the issue. I’m not here though to discuss the initiative itself, or to weigh in with my opinion on badges and their potential to shift the educational landscape in positive ways, or not. What I do want to talk about is how I see the current conversation around badges being a positive thing for that landscape.

Let’s consider two things about the general public policy discourse around education in this country. First, where it thinks learning happens. Second, what it thinks counts as learning. Analyzing the overall rhetoric from educational reform organizations to the education blogosphere to reporting in mainstream news, one finds that the answers to those questions are deeply out of sync with reality. Just paying attention to these spaces, one would assume that school, and primarily the K12 school, is the only place that a young person learns. And one would also assume that the only things that count as learning are decontextualized bits of information that can be poured into kids heads (which is *impossible*, by the way) and then spat back out onto multiple choice tests that ensure us as a society that schools are “working”. It is especially important to know that schools are “working” since they’re the only place that kids learn, right? Naturally.

Now, I’ll be fair and say that there are people within the education discourse in this country that disagree with the above. People who are part of a “counter-reform” movement that see and understand that what kids need for the 21st century is not decontexualized bits of information but rather sets of skills, dispositions and ways of thinking that will allow them to engage meaningfully in civic, cultural and social life, not to mention pursuing work that’s important to them and to society. And those same people often understand that learning doesn’t happen just in school, that school is just one node among many that should aim to be better coordinated with others in order to serve young people. But let’s face it – those people, and I count myself among them, aren’t winning. Any look at educational policy will tell you that. And a big part of the reason is that these out of whack notions of what counts as learning and where it happens are so persistent, and they form the underlying assumptions that drive policy-making.

What I see in the conversation about badges, regardless of how that particular line of work will play out, is a shift in the Overton Window on learning, a shift in the boundaries of the debate, especially in terms of how people in positions of power are now talking in new ways. In ways that acknowledge all those spaces that kids spend time in out of school as a valid learning environments. In ways that validate practices and processes that school rarely is incentivized to foster – practices that are collaborative, creative, critical, and often civic in their nature.

So I’m taking the long view on this one. I don’t know whether badges will be good for learning. I have my own reservations, though also have confidence, from from prior experience with them, in the individuals that are running the competition to be thoughtful and grounded as they do that work. But I can already commend them for taking a positive step to change the frame of the conversation about learning in this country. And that’s no small thing.


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.

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