Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Do They Know They Are Creators?

There is a major question replaying in my head lately--do my students know and understand they are creators and inventors?

In Spring of this year, I took an online class from MIT's Media Lab called Learning Creative Learning. It was an absolutely enthralling experience and changed some of my core assumptions about learning. One of my major takeaways was the learning theory called constructionism.

Constructionism, a concept originally offered by Seymour Papert, builds upon Piaget's constructivist learning theory. Where constructivist theory asserts that learners build (or construct) mental models to make sense of the world, constructionism holds that people learn most effectively if they build physical models to understand the world. Why not actually construct, in a physical way, our understanding of the world?

We could teach fractions in the same stale way using workbooks, but is this how students learn? Instead, we could have students build blocks or fractional models to experience the learning. Is there a better way to understand fractions than by shaping and cutting wood to make a table? Going with this idea, students could design a Scratch video or game that calls for an intimate knowledge of fractions to appropriately design a proportional playing surface.

How about scavengers and decomposition? Show a video to "teach" them compost, or have them build a living, functional compost pile? I hope you get the idea. Make them experts in the designing, the building, and the constructing, in a literal sense, of their knowledge.

This idea blew my mind.

Starting last spring, I changed my teaching style so it was based on this concept. My students built Toys from Trash, used Minecraft in math class, shot videos, designed water filters, played with Scratch, and used the Makey-Makey. This year, eighth grade science students are building marble madness machines to understand force, friction, acceleration, etc. Inspired by the maker movement, I want my students to make and design the world. I want them to be little innovators and creators. I want them to tinker, to play, and ultimately learn more than I could teach.

You see, when children play Minecraft, they can actually create a new world. They craft building materials, try out ways to use them, and construct a whole reality. Think about that for a second. That is an almost magical act. Minecraft is not the only way kids are doing things like this.

Think of a photo app like Instagram. Via cell phones, many young people have access to great cameras in their hands. They can experiment with lighting, setting, and timing to construct the perfect picture. They can fail and try again for free. They can throw on a filter and change the total way a picture is viewed. Using photography they are sharing their built world. These are amazing times.

My worry is kids and other young people don't understand just how creative they actually are. They don't see themselves as designers, creators, and inventors. Is Minecraft a way to pass the time or is it an exercise in active learning and creativity? Do students need to be aware of their design prowess? Do students need to see designing a Scratch video game as tangible construction? Basically, do they have metacognition of their creative activity? Is this type of metacognition necessary?

The reason I feel this question is important is because I want my students to see their design and construction projects as preparation. In any way I can I want to prepare them to change the world around us. I want them to understand they can create, invent, and build the world we live in. They can use construction and creativity to build their lives. I want the resiliency and innovation displayed in Scratch creations to be a building blocks for later breakthroughs. I want them to use the trial and error skills honed when building marble run and catch systems as foundation to later inventive projects that will make the world a better place.

Are these skills and traits gleaned in the process of construction? Absolutely! But without metacognition will the skills and learning be repeatable? Will they transform themselves from consumers to producers? Do they understand they are creating to make sense of the world around them?

All of these are profound questions and make me think very deeply.  Maybe I think too much. If kids are having fun learning and building, steps are surely being made. And just maybe I don't give young people enough credit. Perhaps they do see themselves as creators. Last year, a fifth grade student cut out a Time Magazine article on Minecraft and gave it to me. Not only did he read the article, he understood it, and saw himself in the piece.

They subtitle of the article read: Their game (Minecraft) teaches kids to create, not destroy.

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