Invent to Learn

Posted on January 3, 2014
by FeliciaOctocog

In previous blogs I have spoken about contextualized learning, particularly as it relates to science and math. For too many students the way math and science (and other subjects) are taught in school is too abstract leaving students disengaged and wondering what all this textbook learning has to do with them and their lives. But the problem goes even deeper. Even when students get to participate in lab work or even take home or in-class projects, the assignments are more often than not, prescribed. Either it is a step-by-step assignment where every student does the same thing and gets the same answer or it is guided by a rubric or very detailed assignment sheet leading to the same or similar outcomes.

In the book Invent to Learn, a must-read for all teachers, authors Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager describe a student-centered classroom where everyone learns by doing. Using TMI (Think, Make, Invent) students, individually or in teams, go on a discovery journey by designing unique approaches to a design prompt. This has been called experiential learning, project-based learning and most recently by these authors constructionist learning. This method puts the learning in the student’s hands with the teacher as facilitator.

The concept here is simple. You provide a brief design problem or prompt. You make it as general as possible. You allow students to work alone or as a team and you sit back and watch how each student/team approaches the problem and creates a design. No one design is right and there are potentially infinite approaches. Some may hit on an idea right away and jump into creation (Making). Some may sit and brainstorm, research or storyboard (Thinking). However, all students will make errors, fail, start over or make corrections. Students learn that failure and error is part of the process and that complex problems are not solved in one try. Learning, in fact, takes place through the process of iterative design where you keep what works and deal with what doesn’t. Observing other’s work is not only allowed but encouraged and sharing out ideas is part of the learning.

The teacher’s role is to provide the tools and materials, instructions on how to use the tools, provide some basic concepts, guide when students get legitimately stuck, to observe and then facilitate a discussion about lessons learned. The teacher has to learn how to step back, and let the kids tinker and fail and then watch and evaluate how each student learns.

OK, you are skeptical. You have seen (as I have) students who will either not try (I can’t do it), make a feeble, “this is good enough” design and stop or actually try but get frustrated and abort. For students who are not used to this type of learning, this will certainly happen. We have trained students to psych out what the teacher wants and only give them what they ask for. The teacher’s challenge is to figure out how to get them back on task; perhaps by suggesting improvements to work on such as – how can you improve this to make it bigger, faster, straighter, etc. Try again. Research and practice have shown that students of all ages can show remarkable creativity when given the chance.

At Salem CyberSpace, we are teaming up with a middle school science teacher and a mechanical engineer from General Electric to devise the beginnings of a maker space for our youth. In this space, we have developed about a dozen prompts/design challenges for students to create various structures/products using simple materials and tools. No 3D printers or CAD here like many more sophisticated makerspaces (maybe someday). This space is being developed at Salem CyberSpace as well as at the Collins Middle School for an after-school program and will start in a few weeks.

In our standards-obsessed classrooms, we are losing our edge in creativity on the worldwide stage. Our government agencies are focused on STEM, and educators are worried about a growing male gender gap, particularly amongst boys of color. Employers complain about the high GPA students who succeed in college but who can’t think and create. So let’s start a movement away from lecture/textbook learning and promote this way of learning. It is not a new concept. Indeed it has been around for years but we have lost our way amidst the sea of every-changing standards, assessments and one-size fits all curricula. With the next generation science standards to soon appear, there is an opportunity to make some bold changes so let’s do it!