Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Do You Want To Make?

As I mentioned yesterday (Cool Toys For Teaching Software and Engineering) I am attending the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference this week. Not a lot of computer science here which is true of most education technology conferences these days. That is sad but it is a fact of life. None the less I come looking for inspiration, ideas and to keep up with what is going on in edtech. One session I attended was by Gary Stager who is a huge proponent of constructivist learning. In the course of his talked he asked the question “What do you want to make?” as an alternative to “What do you want to learn?” That got me thinking.

Students are constantly looking for relevance in what they are being asked to learn. Often we fall back on the “learn it! It’s good for you.” which seldom really works. Oh we get them to hold the information long enough to regurgitate most of it back on a test or quiz. But it is gone soon afterwards never to surface again. It’s meaningless. But look at someone of any age who wants to make something and see what happens!

Most self taught software developers didn’t wake up one day and think “I wand to learn Java.” Or C# or Visual Basic or MatLab or Python. What they woke up one day thinking was that they wanted to make something. They wanted to write a program to do something. Maybe what they wanted to make was trivial. I still remember spending hours writing a program to get a line printer to print out huge banners. Maybe what they want to make is a world changing application or fortune making web site. But they wanted to make something and to make that something they had to learn something.

This applies to most anything. I have a cousin who decided he wanted to make a muzzle-loading rifle. He didn’t know anything about metal working, wood working or any one of several skills he needed to master to make the rifle he had in mind. So he set out to learn the things he needed. The result was not only a really nice rifle but a set of skills that will last him a lifetime and serve him well for any number of other projects to come. Could he have learned those skills without a project? Perhaps. Would he have been as driven to do so? Unlikely.

Sometimes you need to start with the end goal in sight and then figure out how to get there. It is usually more effective than starting with “learn this and we’ll figure out what use it is later.”

This is why having students write computer games or program robots or develop smart phone apps can be a powerful learning tool. Students want to create these things. Giving them permission to do so means that they can be the ones driving the need to learn new things. It means they ask to be taught and they search for what tools they need to create what they want as an end result.

Maybe the way to avoid boring projects and to create open-ended projects is to start by asking students what they want to make.


Unknown said...

That's what I always try to do with my projects. I do have a couple of students who just don't know. They are just stuck when it comes to choosing for themselves. They're like that for different reasons. One is that way simply because she's young and this is the first time she's been asked to really think for herself. The other just always wants you to tell her what to do. She wants the easy way out. So, I agree with Gary that you should ask students what they want to do, but you should also be prepared when they have no clue.

Garth said...

There are just so many cool things to build with now that it is ridiculous to not have some kind of cool goal for the kids to aim for. Building games with beginner languages (Kodu, Scratch), intermediate (Kinect/Scratch, Corona), to advanced games with C#/Kinect. Building and programming robots with Mindstorms and Arduino, or building a commercial grade app for Droid/iPhone are just so possible. Twenty years ago it was the uber math geeks that were into programming. Now it is the kids that want to build something they can see and hold.