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Lessons from the toilet: Shifting the focus of education back to the learner

learning = the activity of getting knowledge
value = importance, worth, or benefit

(Definitions from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary)

Consider a recent time you wanted to learn something:

  • How did you know you needed more information?
  • What was your process for “getting knowledge?”
  • How did you know you were finished learning; that you had learned enough?
  • What was the value of this learning to you?

A few months ago, water began gushing from my toilet tank when it was flushed. In response, I inspected every inch of the toilet. I loosened and tightened bolts. I poked, pulled, pushed, plugged, and pounded on it. I searched the Internet for gushing toilets and possible “do it yourself” ways to fix them. I read articles. I looked at step-by-step directions with pictures. I watched videos on YouTube. I went to the home-improvement store and consulted with experts. When I attempted the actual repair, I used a guide I found on the Internet, I re-watched one of the videos of a plumber making a similar repair, and I went back to the home-improvement store for additional supplies and advice. After several hours of research and application of my new learning, my toilet was fixed! Proud of my success, I posted the experience on Facebook. As luck would have it, one of my friends was a general contractor who knew more about plumbing than I did. He offered some additional advice to prevent future leaks, which I immediately implemented. Several months later, the toilet is still leak-free and I feel the self-satisfaction of having learned how to repair it successfully.

I have the opportunity to interact with children in K-12 public school classrooms on a regular basis. When asked about learning, students typically only consider experiences they have within the context of the structured school setting. They know what to learn because their teacher tells them it’s important; their process for learning is to follow the instructions provided by the teacher; they know they’re finished learning when they’ve satisfied the teacher’s objectives and are told they’re done; the value of the learning is the final grade given by the teacher.

At a recent visit to a middle school in Wisconsin, I met a pair of 7th grade boys. I observed them silently reading and taking notes out of a shared textbook for approximately 10 minutes during science class before approaching them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Learning how to use a microscope,” one responded. There were no microscopes anywhere in the classroom that I could see.

“I wonder if there is another way to learn how to use a microscope. What do you think?”

Puzzled, they looked at one another, glanced at the whiteboard where the “Daily Objective” was clearly printed, and after a long pause, one hesitantly guessed, “Maybe we could try using one?”

Their responses to further questions I posed about learning were very similar to those described in the previous paragraph. When I suggested they might broaden their thinking about where, when, how, and with whom learning might take place, they became quite animated and excited to share their authentic learning experiences with Minecraft.

According to these boys, they play Minecraft because they like it and it is fun. They seek out opportunities to learn more about what they can do within the game because they want to be able to play and build better things. They learn by playing, watching videos, and asking friends. They know they’re finished learning when they feel they successfully accomplished what they set out to do, or they determine they are no longer interested in continuing with that particular learning. Often, they are so excited about what they’ve created within the game, they share their successes through recording and sharing videos on YouTube so others can learn from their experiences. When I asked if they needed a teacher to tell them they had satisfactorily completed the learning and assign a grade to represent their knowledge of Minecraft skills and techniques, they laughed.

“The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it.”

When we are interested in something or recognize a personal need for information, we seek out learning opportunities and continue gathering information until we’ve satisfied our curiosities and learned enough. We have developed skills, strategies, and resources for learning; and when we determine we need to seek out additional sources of information, we do.

When I first asked these boys about the kinds of learning they do at home, their responses were framed around homework assigned by their teachers. Like many other students with whom I interact, it didn’t occur to them that what they’re doing when they develop their Minecraft abilities is learning. The difference for these students in learning done at school and learning done at home, is value. The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it (e.g., fun, personal satisfaction, or function).

The following questions are often used to frame teachers’ thinking as they develop lesson and unit plans:

  • What do you want the students to know and be able to do (i.e., what is the standard/objectives)?
  • What activities or learning tasks will you design for students to complete?
  • How will you monitor students’ progress on these learning tasks as they move toward mastering the standard/objectives?
  • How will students prove they’ve mastered the standard/objectives?

What’s the difference between these questions and the questions I posed above?

Learner focus.

Using my original questions, learners design their own experiences to satisfy self-developed curiosities, desires, and needs. Using the teacher-developed questions, mandatory learning is decided by someone else and forced upon learners regardless of their curiosities, desires, and needs.

The real question then becomes, can we shift the focus of learning at school back to the learner? As educators, we owe it to our students to trust their abilities to identify topics of interest, develop and engage in their own tasks and activities to support knowledge gathering, and recognize when they’ve learned enough to thoroughly satisfy their curiosities. This is how people create personally-meaningful value in their learning. In reality, the skills and strategies those 7th grade boys use in attaining and applying Minecraft knowledge transfer to other areas of Minecraft, to other games, and to other situations, including (should they be curious about these topics) fixing toilets and using microscopes.

Review: Makers: The new industrial revolution (by Chris Anderson)

Book: Makers: The new industrial revolution
Author: Chris Anderson
Publisher: Crown Business (October 2, 2012)

The cover story of this month’s issue of Wired Magazine is all about how “the new MakerBot Replicator might just change your world.” Indeed, Wired has been pimping the do-it-yourself world of 3D printing, robotics, and the maker movement aggressively over the past few months. It should come as no surprise that Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book, Makers: The new industrial revolution is being released this month as well.

Anderson writes on the maker revolution — that is, the intersection of manufacturing with a punk way of thinking. Do-it-yourself product creation, new markets for sharing ideas, and new technologies that allow for affordable, small-scale manufacturing, he argues, will transform the global economy.

The emerging maker economy is a realization of Alvin Toffler‘s prosumers: “proactive consumers” who become active in the design and creation of goods and services, and shift the responsibilities of product creation toward the consumer, not the producer.

Anderson dives deep into the observation that the old rules of economies of scale (which require large run sizes to leverage) and specialization (focusing your efforts on one unique task) break apart:

Increasingly, when computers are running the production machines, it costs no more to make each product different. If you’ve ever received a catalog or magazine in the mail that has a personalized message for you, that’s a formerly one-size-fits-all production machine –the printing press– turned into digital one-size-fits- one machine, using little more than a big version of the desktop inkjet printer. Likewise when you buy a cake with fancy icing from the supermarket. That icing was applied by a robot arm –it can make each cake design different as quickly as making them all the same– personalizing it costs no more to do, yet the supermarket can charge more for it because it is perceived as more valuable. The old model of expensive custom machines that had to make the same thing in vast numbers to justify to tooling expense is fading fast.

Indeed, the retail sector is transforming from a business of selling things into one of creating experiences or perceived personal value for consumers. Anderson calls this “happiness economics.” The digitization of components and ideas and realizing them with new, low-cost, small scale manufacturing allow people to cut, paste, remix, and share their creations alike, with the potential to create a new market based on creative ideas and their related design files.

The book focuses on four technologies that are leading the DIY and small scale manufacturing revolution: CNC machines, laser cutters, and 3D scanners. All of these are common at Fab Labs and maker hack “factories” around the world.

While Anderson captures the essence of the maker movement, I feel he fails to connect it with the parallel revolution happening in the software and microelectronics industries, especially where these ideas are expressed as accessible maker tools such as the Arduino. He shines, however, as he looks toward a future where the same revolution is transforming biology (bioengineering) and other fields that previously required expensive, dedicated laboratories. For only a few thousand dollars today, an individual can acquire key components for genetic manipulation –something that, only a few years ago, cost labs 100- if not 1,000-times that amount. And these costs are still decreasing.

Dangerous or not, a revolution is happening. And, Anderson is spreading the word.

In light of the maker revolution, are schools preparing kids for the wrong economy?


Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

Quotes from the book were extracted from a galley proof, and may change in the final publication.

Do it yourself – do it together

A couple weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit the Waag Society in Amsterdam. I met with Keimpe de Heer, director of the Creative Learning Lab, and he is focused on innovating in human potential development and education. Paired with a Fab Lab, they aim to develop the community they serve into prosumers of imaginative, creative and innovative outputs — not just consumers.

Watch the interview with Keimpe. The first ten minutes discuss the Waag and the Creative Learning Lab. The real fun starts at 10:48 into the video, where Keimpe challenges the “do it yourself” movement with “do it together” collaboration. Using open source concepts, Keimpe explains how “we” can be better than “me.” At 14:45, he shares some products bring developed at the Fab Lab, including a $100 $50 prosthetic leg and tank tread upgrades for wheel chairs.

This was my second visit to the Fab Lab in Amsterdam. For a summary of my previous visit, and comparisons to the Fab Lab at Century College in Minnesota, click here.

July 20 update: Keimpe wrote to correct that the Fab Lab is working on a $50 prosthesis, not a $100 prosthesis. Even better!