In all, self-directed maker activities may have students expending a lot of time and effort—and scarce cognitive resources—on activities that don’t help them learn.
cognitive load researchers caution that learning and creating are distinct undertakings, each of which competes with the other for limited mental reserves.
The best way to ensure learning, these researchers maintain, is to provide direct instruction: clear, straightforward explanation, offered before any making has begun.
Kapur has found that presenting problems in this seemingly backwards order helps those students learn more deeply and flexibly than subjects who receive direct instruction. Indeed, the teams that generated the greatest number of suboptimal solutions—or failed—learned the most from the exercise.
Learners pay especially close attention when the instructor reveals the correct solution, because they have now thought deeply about the problem but have failed themselves to come up with the correct solution.
Some tasks, like those concerning basic knowledge or skills, are better suited to direct instruction.
We should tell student makers exactly how to perform straightforward tasks, so that they can devote cognitive resources to more complex operations.
By applying cognitive load theory to making, we can “unbundle” learning and creating—at least at first—so as to reduce cognitive overload.
Instead of asking learners to learn and make at the same time, these two activities can be separated and then pursued sequentially.
Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices but always within a framework that supports accurate and effective learning. The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves.
Fixed stations have “low barriers to entry,” says Fleming; students can walk into the library and immediately engage in the activities set up there, without any instruction or guidance. Fleming’s fixed stations include LEGOs and a take-apart technology area, where students can disassemble old computers and other machines to investigate how they work.
Flexible stations, by contrast, are periodically changed, and they involve much more structured guidance from Fleming, who might lead students step by step through an activity, modeling what to do as she goes.
“Before I ordered a single piece of equipment [for the maker space], I did a thorough survey of students’ existing interests,” says Fleming. “I also looked for ways that the maker space could supplement areas in which the academic curriculum was thin, or make available to all students activities that had previously been open to only a select group.”
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