“Nothing beautiful is forced”
– Gary Stager
Gary Stager’s presentation was one of the presentations I was particularly looking forward to, for a whole range of reasons. He was recommended to me as a ‘must follow’ on Twitter and as someone who was at the forefront of pushing for a move towards combining curriculum and practicality through doing by one of my professors in the final year of my undergraduate degree. Accordingly, I followed him on Twitter it is an interesting read. Gary is certainly not someone who is backwards about coming forwards, and can be highly dismissive of ‘education revolutions’ that are often touted, even amongst many other educators who are seen as being ‘heavyweights’ in the education world. I have not had the pleasure of a deep dialogue with Gary, and so I cannot speak to his thinking behind his dismissal of many educational theories. That said, his presentation was highly engaging, and Gary was clearly full of energy and passion. Gary did plug his book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, co-authored with Sylvia Libow Martinez, which I bought a copy of and which Gary kindly signed for me, and having read the first chapter, it’s a book that gets the brain excited to change the pedagogical practices used.
Gary opened by describing computers as laboratories for expression and by saying that “young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity, we need to leverage that or it manifests as boredom,” a sentiment that I think most teachers will have seen at some point over their career. Gary quoted Seymour Papert, who said “when ideas go to school, they lose their power” when saying that the maker community has had it with school. Given that kids are the ones at the centre of the maker movement, where they have genuine choice, agency and power, and are being valued and appreciated for their skills, thinking and ingenuity, this sends a strong message to educators that our pedagogical choices are stifling our students.
Paul Hamilton said in his presentation that “[y]ou don’t start the creation of a new amazing building with a tool. You start with a design. So why on earth would you start the creation of an amazing learning experience with an app?” Gary echoed this sentiment by saying that “[…]it would be irresponsible to build a pen around a student. We need to use the materials of the environment.” He elaborated on this by commenting that when the same skills are required in the physics laboratory, as are required in the arts studio, the design room and the English class, then the lines between the discipline have been obliterated. This destruction of the traditional demarcation between the scholastic disciplines is not possible if the disciplines continue to constrain their students within specific, formulaic pens.
Educational institutions have overvalued learning with our heads and undervalued learning with hands and hearts, according to Gary. To demonstrate this point, or rather, to show what can occur when the constraints are removed, Gary played us a Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show video. I’ve not been able to find the specific one that Gary showed us, but the below is one of the videos on the SuperAwesomeSylvia YouTube Channel.
Sylvia’s energy and passion is indicative of those involved in the maker movement and demonstrates that programming can go from digital to analog, or soft copy to hard copy as the programming takes place in the ‘soft copy’ or digital environment and is then turned into a hard copy when the code is activated in it’s physical; construct, whether that be a robot of some description, or some other device constructed by the maker.
The quote by Gary in the above image stunned me, until I thought about the current trend of helicopter parenting, where our students’ lives are often scheduled for every minute of the day, and that often they are short-term events such as play-dates, extra-curricular classes, and often for very short amounts of time. At school, students are told to learn in discrete blocks of time, mathematics is half an hour today, spelling is fifteen minutes, science is another half an hour and so on, and there is still very little use of discipline/curriculum integration, or sustained sessions where the students have the opportunity to dive deep into a skill or concept. The isolation of the curriculum subjects from each other also makes it hard for students to learn how to transfer skills and conceptual knowledge across the disciplines into various applications, both within the academic disciplines and the real-world applications.
This is another area in which the maker-movement is seeing great success, where skills and concepts from a range of disciplines are brought together to solve problems, with students getting their hands dirty in the actual problem solving process, as the problems are real ones that they need to be solve, as opposed to contrived ones that many teachers, myself included, either make up themselves, or pull out of a textbook for the purpose of learning how to find the length of the hypotenuse or other such ‘problems.’ These are contrived problems because the answer is already known, meaning they are not real problems, they are tests to check for students ability to remember how to apply a specific formula to a specific type of question. Gary reiterated this point when he commented that “[…]students learn a lot of vocabulary without any context.”
Gary continued along this train of thought, saying that not only do schools have a “sacred obligation” to introduce students to things they have not seen before, but that as teachers, we cannot teach twenty-first century learners if we have not learned anything this century. Unfortunately there are still a lot of teachers who have not gotten on the twenty-first century train, and still require all learning to be done on paper and written by hand. Whilst there is certainly still a place for paper and handwriting, there is more and more, no reason why much of what we do with students and their output, cannot be submitted digitally, whether it be via e-mail, Google Docs, video submission, or one of the plethora of digital submission options.
I’ll leave you today with two powerful comments that Gary left us with, to close out the ClassTech conference stream of FutureSchools Expo 2015.
“Every time you have to engage in an educational transaction, ask if there is more they can do and less you can do to give your students more agency.”
“Those of us who know better, should do better. If we won’t stand between them and the madness, then who will?”
My next article (perhaps the next two or three, depending on how much I write from my notes) will be a review of the Masterclass I attended, lead by flipped learning pioneer, Jon Bergmann.
As always, thank you for reading, and please leave a comment. I would love to hear from anyone who has successfully incorporated a makerspace into their pedagogy, or their school, and how you went about doing so, the hurdles you overcame and the opposition you faced, and how you won the naysayers over.