Saturday, July 12, 2014

Scribbling Machines and a Learning Framework

So, I'm participating in this MOOC (massive online offering course) called "The Art of Tinkering" and it's awesome... most of the time.  This particular MOOC is being put on by The Exploratorium in SF, an outstanding, interactive museum.  Today was one of those days where I felt like, "Oh, I love this! I'm learning how to build a scribble machine. I could totally do this with my students!" I was riding high and here's why:
  1. The authors of this course have set it up in a way that they expect you to get frustrated and then push through it to learn. When I have to be frustrated as part of the learning process, then I'm ok with it.
  2. I was successful with building my machine on the first go round (for the most part).
So here is what my machine looked like:

Now, here is the thing.  I felt comfortable making mistakes because I knew that was one of the learning objectives, so I was supposed to do that, but I was also successful on my first try.  And, because I didn't have any other containers to work with, I figured, I'm done.  I was not willing to try something more complicated.  I wanted to end on a high note.  How many other people feel this way?  If you do something, and it works, how many of you want to try to do something else that might not work?  I don't know the answer to this.  But I do know that among the teachers I work with at school, about half would be ready to stop after a success and half would be willing to try something more difficult.  And that says a lot!  How do we push ourselves to overcome success and embrace challenge? Teachers are just as vulnerable as students and it's difficult to push each beyond their comfort zone.  So how do we make challenges comforting?

The creators of this course ( and coincidentally, those who run The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium) suggest that it all has to do with stepping in at the right moment to help further develop understanding.  The Learning Dimensions Framework that they offer up emphasizes four learning dimensions:

  1. Engagement- time spent tinkering and displays of motivation
  2. Initiative and Intentionality- goal setting, seeking feedback, persisting through frustration, risk taking
  3. Social Scaffolding- requesting help, inspiring new ideas, physically connecting to others' work
  4. Development of Understanding- expressing realizations, offering explanations for outcomes, applying knowledge, striving for understanding
I think most of us engage in this process, but when we are stymied, what do we do? What do we do when nobody specifically tells us that we are supposed to get stuck and make mistakes?  Here's what I do: I give up... at least for some time.  I don't like feeling like a failure.  I need someone to quickly get me over the frustration humps so that I can go on to the next challenge.  As an example, I used a GoPro to film the scribble machine.  Editing that video was not intuitive to me and when I couldn't get it after a few quick tries, I gave up.  For one thing, I felt like I had just expended all of my frustration capital on the machine (even though I really hadn't been frustrated) and for another thing, I am a tech person for crying out loud, I should be able to figure this out!  Anyway, my husband solved the editing problem and I was able to post.

To me, the key to helping students succeed in each of these dimensions is to build relationships with them so you know who to push and who to guide more gently.  I think most teachers understand relationships. But we need administrators and support staff who understand us and who can nurture our own learning.  This fall I plan to roll out a digital tinkering elective.  My goal is to help students find success among their frustrations and to allow for mistakes but to ultimately let them leave knowing that they have accomplished something amid those mistakes.  My second goal is to get teachers interested in tinkering.  It's not something many of us practice, but I think it's time we start.  We need more time for trial and error and we need more people telling us that this is an intentional learning objective.  That way, when we encounter frustration in other places, we can better handle it.

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