How Follow / Tinker / Make / Share goes beyond the ordinary to help learners grow
To be honest, this didn’t start out to be it’s own article…. It’s actually the second half of this one which sets up everything you’ll read here. But when that article approached the irretrievable tl;dr limit of 4,000 words, I was wisely advised to split it up. If you find yourself wanting more setup, a quick trip there will help. Don’t worry; I promise not to go anywhere while you check it out. If you already read that or don’t feel a trip back there is necessary, great. Let’s get on with the show….
If you’ve arrived here, it’s hopefully because you’re either a fan of learning-by-making or are learning-by-making curious. As I’ve written previously, this approach is an important antidote for the stultifying and toxic mix that passes as ‘standardized learning.’ However, despite a raft of research and supports for integrating challenge-based, service, and maker learning, many teachers and schools are hesitant to incorporate these approaches — at least for most learners. Perhaps those in elite schools or ‘accelerated’ programs will get a chance to experience learning-by-making, but most learners simply won’t.
That’s a shame.
When it comes down to it, this isn’t because most teachers are uncertain of the benefits of learning-by-making or haven’t heard colleagues sing its praises at conferences. It’s because they just don’t have the time necessary to develop and integrate projects in an already overflowing schedule. And the pressure of standardized exams makes adopting this approach seem even less advisable. Giving learners information to memorize for the test seems so much more expedient.
But it’s also less likely to ‘stick’ — and it takes dramatically more energy from teachers to keep the wheels turning. Schools that have embraced project- and challenge-based learning, on the other hand, have seen dramatic improvements in almost every measure — often to their own surprise. If schools can just overcome the initial friction, learning-by-making proves itself every time.
Introducing the Follow / Tinker / Make / Share Framework for learning-by-making
You’re a teacher. Or a parent. Or a school leader. Or just a person. Given the perilous state of the world, currently hosting a global pandemic as a warm-up act for … well, a catastrophic global warm-up, you’ve perhaps begun to recognize the burdens this next generation will have to carry. They won’t be able to let anything slide. The challenges they’ll have to solveare arguably more complicated than any in human history, and the choices they make will largely determine whether or not humanity survives. Plus, to put a cherry on top, despite the best efforts and labor of many teachers, most of this generation have a Covid-shaped hole right in the middle of their education.
However, they don’t really need what many educators are prepared to offer. They certainly don’t need fill-in-the blank worksheets, fill-in-the-bubble standardized exams, or fill-in-the-seat lectures. Far too many folks love to trot out the dubious old saw about “jobs that don’t exist yet,” but regardless of whether that’s true, it should be obvious that this generation won’t be prepared for any of what’s coming by marching through a bunch of lock-step, ‘school-that-exists-now’ exercises. There’s simply no way that regurgitating those pre-digested facts or replicating those canned-formula procedures is going to prepare them even for today’s challenges — let alone tomorrow’s.
As lots of us have been saying, we’ve got to build something better.
Kids are fed up with sitting in front of screens watching teachers lecture all day. Is that a surprise?
And an even more important question: is watching a teacher lecture from a desk in a classroom really all that much better? Was it better when you were the student sitting in that desk? How many of those lectures made a meaningful difference in your life? How many of those facts do you actively remember or use regularly? How did those lectures develop your potentialities or kindle agency in you?
Now spin it back around. How many of the lectures students are fidgeting in front of today — either on-screen or in-person — will make their lives fundamentally better, more resilient, more genuinely enfranchised, or more fulfilled? Is that ratio any better than it was for you?
Most of us remember relationships, projects, team and club activities … parts of school that engaged, connected, and empowered us. So if delivered information is not primarily what we carry with us afterwards, why do we keep building schools like this?
It’s an Abilene paradox. Most students don’t really want to sit through that series of lectures, and deep down, most teachers want to do more than just deliver them. The limitations of COVID-19 have put this in even starker relief. We all hunger for something better.
But if we tear down the way school does school, what do we build instead?
If you want to build a diverse, just, and equitable society, you cannot do it with the current educational system.
That may sound harsh, but there’s no use pretending otherwise.
Consider for a moment not what happens on the surface of most schooling — not the math, history, chemistry, or civics…. Consider instead what’s happening beneath these, about the structural armature over which all the diverse disciplinary practices and activities have been stretched. Think about what happens in most classrooms, regardless of the learners’ age, the subject their teachers are addressing, or the country or city in which they’re located…
Working to do the best for learners, teachers demonstrate a principle, concept, or skill. Then they ask learners to complete an exercise designed to implement and solidify this lesson. Most teachers would love to try a different, more creative or student-centered approach, but they just don’t have time. They’re overwhelmed with too many students and too much bureaucratic paperwork. So they ask all students to complete the same assignment. It’s sheer, handy pragmatics. This way, teachers can compare one learner’s performance with another’s to ‘see who’s getting it and who isn’t.’ It’s objective, scientific, clear.
With instructionist education throwing up its hands in the face of the pandemic and the ‘education industrial complex’ peddling the same old information-centric instructionalism that drives home-bound teens to sedition and insurgency, it seems appropriate to ask “what should we build instead?”
Yet despite the itch to make something new, even our well intentioned first instincts are likely to point us in the wrong direction. As Paul Rand famously observed, “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.”
This is just as true for education, as Paulo Freire cautioned. Ask most parents about their own experience with school (not with their pals or their favorite teachers, but their overall academic experience) and you’ll often get a tepid saga of boredom, frustration, irrelevance, and dissatisfaction. Yet ask those same parents about their kids breaking away from tradition to try something new, and you’ll witness suspicion, resistance, and a vindication of those ‘old ways’ likely to contain the phrases “I turned out okay” or “it builds character….” Many teachers and school leaders demonstrate this same cognitive dissonance.
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