Oxymoron or Potential Amplifier?

“That’s awesome! Kids would love playing in a room like that,” said one teacher. Another teacher countered with, “Since when have kids had time to play at school? It’s not on the SOL tests!” My question back to them was, “Is play a Standard of Learning to be tested or a strategy for learning to be used or not by our teachers?” The first teacher said, “I would love to ‘let’ kids learn by playing. Where do I start?”
There are so many things that go through my head when I have a conversation like this one. I think of the hours I spent at home, playing with math and learning far more about the discipline of mathematics than I did in school (not) working through problem sets that were of no interest to me. I learned the decimal equivalents of landmark fractions because they ALL are routine when you crunch baseball statistics. In a three game series, x/9 is not unusual for a full time player. I quickly figured out the pattern and didn’t need a 35 question worksheet to do it.

What about kids who don’t “play” with a learning goal in mind? Can we trust them to learn if we turn them loose in a Maker Space? How will we know? Is it “ok” for us to provide some structures for some kids?

What is a Maker Space anyway? My working definition of a Maker Space is that it is kind of like an art room, high-tech computer and electronics lab, Lincoln Log/LEGO trunk, kindergarten teaching kitchen, physics classroom, blocks and bricks corner from a preschool room, and science closet on steroids and all together. It’s the place I would go if I needed to find stuff to make something. It’s the place my students would go with or without me when they needed something we didn’t have or to do something they couldn’t do in our assigned learning space.

I had a conversation with a progressive educator/parent/colleague yesterday – he is worried his second grade son is experiencing too much choice in school and wants to ensure he also develops a sense of personal responsibility and how/when to protest, exercise choice, or comply. One adage from Bill Glasser comes to mind here – “With freedom comes responsibility.”

A really good “at home task” will come home, the kid will look at the parent and say, “I don’t really want to do this math assignment, I want to go play with LEGOs instead.” That would be fine with the teacher, but it is not sitting well with the parents to see this night after night. Having years of experience working with kids to negotiate “replacement activities,” I fell back on my own parameters for kids – “What learning am I trying to help you do or evidence? How does that replacement activity help you do this?” So, if the math assignment had something to do with exploring multiples of two, your replacement activity has to have something to do with exploring multiples of two. The educator/parent/colleague was going to share that notion with his wife to see if they could make that work at home. I submit that they will have far deeper conversations about curriculum, assessment, and learning with their bright child than they would if they simply made him sit through doing his homework as the teacher envisioned it.

So, is it so bad to expect kids to do things that move them toward deep understanding of the curriculum, or at least the parts that merit understanding deeply? I don’t think so. Do educators have the tendency to suck the joy and self-direction out of learning in the name of covering the standards for the state test or protecting their jobs? Yes, some of them do. Is there a way to balance our responsibility to our young people and our accountability to the state? I think so.

One idea I have been kicking around is applying a strategy I learned in 1988 – the Four Question Strategy. Dr. Julia Cothron used to be a science teacher, then a science coordinator in a district in Virginia, and back when our state department of education was into teaching and learning far more than testing, she was the science supervisor for the state. She did workshops all over the state and wrote a few books on teaching and learning science. Here’s one of her more recent books that includes information on the Four Question Strategy: http://books.google.com/books?id=_rbcIKxo8YoC&pg=PA32&lpg=PA32&dq=%22four+question+strategy%22+cothron&source=bl&ots=FO07AxusK2&sig=eQpkW4Ds-rlGD6P1KAwourMgCPo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XxINUfPKOI640AH50YCwAw&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22four%20question%20strategy%22%20cothron&f=false
Here are the Four Questions in a combination of Dr. Cothron’s words and mine:

Question 1: What materials are readily available for conducting experiments on (the thing the state says you need to know about)?

Question 2: How does (the thing the state says you need to know about) act?

Question 3: How can I change the set of (the thing the state says you need to know about) materials to affect the action?

Question 4: How can I measure or describe the response of (the thing the state says you need to know about) to the change?

The book I linked to includes an example with plants to illustrate how the strategy might play out. How would these questions play out when the supplies are 2-D and 3-D fabrication tools, iPads, LEGO bricks, Raspberry Pis, etc?

Kids do these four questions intuitively when they learn to play a video game or to code with a new tool. Here’s a revised set of the questions I have heard or observed kids cycling through as they “play” with creating something in Minecraft or in mastering a game someone else created:

Question 1: What icons and objects are on the screen? What actions are in the menus?

Question 2: What do these things do?

Question 3: What is the goal of the game or of my design? How can these things help me achieve that goal or design?

Question 4: Is my game playing or my design good enough yet? What do I need to do differently?

So, how could these Four Questions support the Maker Space work of kids and keep school from getting in their way?

When you use the Four Question Strategy with kids, it takes a lot of stuff and the learning is inherently differentiated. The Four Question Strategy emphasizes science process skills and skills of Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. The Four Question Strategy incorporates Schlechty’s Design Qualities of engaging work as well:

Content and Substance
Product Focus
Organization of Knowledge
Clear and Compelling Product Standards
Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures
Affiliation
Affirmation
Choice
Novelty and Variety
Authenticity

Is the Four Question Strategy a strategy that can help the adults see the learning value of mostly student-directed Maker Space work? Will kids see it as too much like “school”? What if we only “planted” the largest of topics and got out of the way? How do the adults NOT intervene TOO MUCH so that it kills the joy of exploring and making? How would you change the four questions to be a better match as a scaffold into the Maker Space work? Do you see Four Question Strategy in the context of Maker Space work as an oxymoron or a potential amplifier? Amplifier for whom – the grown ups or the kids or both?

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