Monday, December 14, 2009

Making as learning

Originally posted on Cathy N. Davidson's Cat in the Stack blog on
I've been thinking about the ways we learn when we make things and how differerent that experience is from learning in order to answer exam questions (especially multiple choice) about things, subjects, or ideas that other people have made.   What is most different is that, when you make something you learn about failure and from failure.   When you "get the answer wrong," you fail.   Therein lies all the difference.

Whether you are making a robot, a sweater, a poem, a research paper, a mod of a video game, or a donut,  the first time you do it you draw from and build upon a range of similar experiences, some of them successful, some of them not.  Trial-and-error is part of the process but so is your own, personal toolkit.   Some of those tools might be actual, physical, material tools.  Others are bodily repertoires of gestures or words or sounds or experiences.  And still others are histories of past successes and failures, some of which have direct relevance to what you are making, some of which are important simply because they remind you that you survive and even thrive after failure--and success does not stop the process of learning. In all of these settings, actually doing the process becomes a learning lab, a place of experimentation and process and exploration and (dare I say it?) fun.

I'm especially taken with futurist Alvin Toffler's idea that the literacy of the 21st century is not just reading, writing, and arithmetic  but the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.   Unlearning doesn't thrill everyone.  Some find it profoundly disorienting to realize that what they know doesn't serve them in the present and they have to not just learn something new but get rid of a lot of baggage and start again.  But the more you spend your life making things, the more you realize that unlearning is a skill too.  It is the novice who thinks every word that issues from the pen of the expert is perfect and that as they write their first major independent project (right, dissertation students?) they have to get it perfect the first time around.   Part of great writing is being willing to chuck a lot.  Whole chapters.  Whole books.  And to realize that it is the process, the confidence that comes from both learning and unlearning (together) that allows one to relearn and achieve.

In his marvelous book Shop Class as Soulcraft, political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford argues that in the 1990s shop classes were abandoned all over America in favor of computer classes, training students for the technologies of the future.   Quite frankly, I don't see that many computer labs--and the idea that you would substitute one for the other is tragic.  I can't think of anything that more prepares one for the process-oriented aspects of computer programming and remixing and Do-It-Yourself video and music mashups and all of the other exciting participatory aspects of learning online together than building something and shop class is a sanctioned place, within education, for doing just that. 
But here's where I depart from Crawford's diagnosis.  It wasn't just the shop class that ended in the 1990s, it was so many hands' on classes where students made things.  Excellence more and more was determined by those standardized tests, whether ACT and SAT's (as if every brilliant student had to go to college and was a failure if she did not) or, later, the "standards based education" of No Child Left Behind.   Not only did we lose shop classes but we also lost computer labs in most schools along with art classes, music classes, band, languages, and even gym.  
I personally believe that losing those classes where kids actually move around, where they don't have to sit in one place all day, looking forward at a teacher who teaches them how to give answers, may well be the biggest contributor we have not only to the high drop-out rate but to such attention diseases of our decade as ADD and ADHD.  Coupled with no longer walking to school, with the extreme limitations parents and teachers today put on kids' physical experience of play,  we have created home and school environments for the sedentary.  I mean the intellectually sedentary too.  Lack of movement, lack of process, lack of trial and error, lack of participation and getting your hands dirty, lacking of making things, making ideas, making art and music:   we've substituted a very ends-oriented idea of knowledge when digital culture should be all about how we get there, with an understanding that "there" is never finished.  It always needs updating.  Like that project in the basement that never is perfect enough,  life online is a constant, a process.

Where in schools today do we teach kids not only how you draw upon everything you know--and that which your friends know--to make something but, once made, you then use that knowledge to move on to the next thing?  The end product is not the point.  It is the struggle and the joy of getting there.


  1. What sets video games apart as an amazingly successful teaching tool is that they make failing fun. Think of a racing game. What's the first thing everyone wants to do? CRASH!!! But that's technically "failure". But the video game doesn't scold you, instead it rewards you by letting see explosions, fall over a cliff (which you never get to really do by the way), flipping and crunching your car.

    But what has this really done? While failing you may have learned a little about the physics of certain environmental objects, the reaction of other cars, or that the game let's you start over right there instead of going all the way back. These are little nuggets that the player learns will actually help them down the line - crashing into a car may help you turn faster for example.

    Bottom line is, making failure fun actually stimulates the risk taking and exploratory attitudes of the player without extinguishing the desire to accomplish the "goal". Eventually, the player is done exploring, wants more of a challenge and enjoys pushing the car to its limits without going off the track.

    Making failure fun is what makes the video game model for teaching so effective.

  2. Another benefit of using the video game structure for teaching is that you can do BOTH multiple choice testing and big picture thinking, collaboration, and analytic decision making all at once therefore making "testing" and 21st century learning possible at the same time.

    For example: Imagine running a railroad yard where goods are transported through your junction for delivery to many local industries. And conversely, finished products and raw materials need to be picked up from your local industries for distribution outbound.

    The student must develop a big picture concept of industries that need raw materials on time, just in time maybe, and others that have less immediate needs. Some that have perishable goods and others that don't. So the player will have to juggle the priority of trains that need to stop and drop off cars at particular stations. There also is a limited supply of fuel and engines to do the picking up and dropping off of cars as well as limited track space for storage. Optimization of this process is the goal.

    Tracking the decisions the player makes at each step is like a multiple choice question. In fact, a well designed game makes this a question: YardMaster asks - "How many refrigerator cars do we need for industry x?" The student checks the cargo sheet and sees how many cars are needed - division! If you literally want to make it multiple choice, you put 3 cars on track 1, 5 cars on track 2, and 7 cars on track 3 and ask which track we need to use for the next delivery.

    A good simulation then presents more dynamic situations that call for big picture and strategic thinking. For example - you can put cars closer to the industry than others, or you can have empty cars coming in being dropped off by a different train, or potentially delay the shipment splitting it into two different pickups with later deliveries.

    Bottom line is, you can test for specific knowledge (division, addition, multiplication, time calculations, weight of goods, speed, fuel consumption, all kinds of things) within a bigger picture scenario that creates 21st century perspective and learning (collaboration happens with a yardmaster and several engineers and industry managers).

    The future of education satisfies BOTH the need for testing and evaluation within a big picture, collaborative, strategic thinking framework.

  3. Okay, and since not everybody is enthralled by trains... just look at the popularity of fantasy sports leagues. Look at all the strategy taking place. You don't just calculate stats, you need to predict what will happen the following week. You need to see if the particular type of runner or passer will perform against the style of defense of the next team. this takes real analysis. Should you make the substitute? Will the game be close and require a field goal kicker instead of another position player (thinking the field goal kicker will see more action in a close game).

    All this requires the testable questions of figuring out statistics - yards divided by carries, passing completion percentages, etc., done within the larger context of strategy and big picture thinking.