The Year 5 teaching team of Kelly Watson, Andrew McKie and James Colbert have spent their mid-year break on a study tour of the United States. Kelly Watson reflects on one part of their tour.
“Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017 is committed to making connections between child-centred learning theories and the creative construction of knowledge with computers. In addition to providing a rich sandbox where educators enjoy the luxury of time to work on personally rewarding projects, there are opportunities to interact with some of the greatest educational minds of our time.”
It was like being let loose in a candy store; make what you want, decide how to do it, play with the tools and materials available, and make your own choices! There were no rules, and none were required. Gary Stager told us to "take off our teacher hats, be learners and choose something you want to do."
When empowered to make your own choices within a supported, caring learning environment, amazing things happen. At times I felt inspired, excited, and even ecstatic, while at others, challenged, uncomfortable and perhaps a little overwhelmed. A roller-coaster ride that was to last four days and leave a permanent imprint on the way I see myself as a learner, what I believe I am capable of achieving, and on my broader views of education and learning.
What do you wish to make?
In a large group context, I have a tendency to be an active listener. Although I had a project in mind, one that I was quite keen to pursue, I did not raise my hand and share my idea. Fortunately, among the many and varied projects that were suggested, was one which loosely matched my thoughts; Colour changing shoes. Suggested projects were recorded on large posters that were placed along the wall. We were then encouraged to take a marker and scribe our names on the projects that captured our imaginations and interests. This may have been one project; this may have been many. I recorded my name under five different projects, pleased to note that many other names were also listed under my preferred option.
Out of my comfort zone.
In order to find those with shared project interests and form groups, Gary invited those who felt strongly about a particular idea to step forward and record the idea on paper before moving into an open space to display the idea for others to see. Several people responded. I shifted on the edge of my seat, keen to see if someone else, someone with more courage than me, also felt passionate about my project idea. Unfortunately, they did not. The remaining participants were then invited to move from their seats and join the person who displayed a project that they were most interested in pursuing. Not willing to give up my project, I had to find the courage to act immediately, or miss the opportunity. With my heart racing and palms sweating, I moved in the opposite direction to the crowd and recorded my idea. When I moved to the edge of the open space and held it up for everyone to see, to my surprise, five other people came to join me. I had cleared my first hurdle.
The project I was to spend the next four days totally engrossed in alongside five other amazing women was to make running shoes that would light up when you walked. Initially we laughed. No one had any idea how this might be achieved, and only one of us had attempted to program using a micro-controller before. On reflection, effective, productive, positive collaboration started immediately. Where did this come from? How did it evolve? We all shared a personal interest in the project. No one was coerced. We had a shared vision and upon establishing a shared knowledge deficit, discussed possible starting points, achievable goals that we could build upon as we progressed and task distribution. This establishment of community, our small maker community, enabled us to take steps into the unknown and develop the confidence to explore new materials, to ask questions and make shared decisions.
As the days progressed, our community strengthened. We had many spontaneous planning discussions to evaluate where we were at, what we had found out and where we needed to go next. We shared tasks and the opportunity for each other to engage in particular learning opportunities as they evolved, whether it be coding, creating circuits or soldering.
I lay in bed that first night reflecting on the day’s challenges. We had spent the day playing with several different wearable micro-controllers and LEDs. Which configurations and codes could we get to work? Which allowed for the functions we might want to incorporate? Which would be the most suitable option? Along the way we were developing our understanding of the coding and by the days end, had managed to light neopixel LEDs. All this had seemed impossible earlier that morning. It was hard work and my brain was exhausted. Yet lying there, the end-point of the project still seemed so far away and there were only three days left. Feeling a little overwhelmed, I was only able to sleep once I had thought through the steps still required and a timeline in which to achieve each stage.
An informal planning meeting the following morning quickly established consensus of the day’s goal: to find, connect, test and code a suitable sensor.
"While having a sense of agency entails having a tendency towards action, engaging in agentic behaviour invloves both the pursuit and the execution of a complex, multi-layered web of interactions." - Clapp, Ross, Oxman, Ryan & Tishman, 2017.
We spent the morning seeking new knowledge, direction and skills. We each took on a task, whether it be research or trialling different possible sensors. Unlike our explorations with LEDs the previous day, a solution was not as forthcoming. Although the valostat fabric, a material that resembles a thick black garbage bag, had many advantages, we had great difficulty in attaching the conductive thread in a way that would connect the circuit and in obtaining a threshold at which a pressure reading would be recorded. At this point, I experienced an emotional conflict; a sense of helplessness and frustration whilst simultaneously being determined. Active reflection was constant. The morning passed and by lunch, much to all our surprise, we achieved our goal. This early success built confidence, transforming our sense of agency to agentic action. We felt empowered and realised we now had time to entertain more elaborate and ambitious goals for our product; shoes that counted your steps and displayed different light colours at set milestones.
Elation - break-through moments
In order to experience the exhilaration of a break-through, one must encounter an obstacle. This generally requires persistence and effort to overcome. By the third afternoon, our prototype was constructed and the decisive moment arrived. With the program loaded onto the micro-controller, we unplugged the laptop and turned on the battery pack, but nothing happened. By this stage, we were adjusting to difficulties, developing the ability to respond productively to the unexpected and demonstrating persistence. Working together, we were quick to isolate potential problems and systematically work through each. We had confronted several challenges along our journey and celebrated the small but significant break-throughs along the way, each of which building our confidence, community and sense of empowerment. It was to be some time before our break-through came and we will be eternally grateful to faculty member Brian Smith for his expertise; “Have you switched [the micro-controller] to battery?”
The micro-controller has a battery switch? Sometimes the biggest problems are not problems at all. We located the tiny switch and shifted it into the on position. Our shoes worked perfectly! I still cannot find words that adequately describe the overwhelming feeling of elation I felt at that moment and shared with my new friends. At that moment in time, I felt there was nothing I could not learn or achieve. I was ready to take on anything.
Agency and maker empowerment
Last year, I participated in and completed an online course titled Teaching and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom through Harvard University Graduate School of Education. I was introduced to the concepts of agency and of maker empowerment as a disposition; an approach to how one sees and engages with the world. As I engaged with the course, I actively observed my students working on projects. Were these dispositions evident in my classroom? If so, what were the conditions that allowed them to be present? In the role of the teacher, I sought to understand how agency and empowerment manifested when students were given choice in the projects with which they engaged, and how they proceeded to develop their work. I read, observed and formed ideas. However, in the role of the teacher, I was always a step removed. Piaget is often quoted for saying, “Knowledge is the consequence of experience.” Four days at Constructing Modern Knowledge provided me with the opportunity to immerse myself in the role of the learner. Being able to work on a project of my choice without step-by-step instructions, without a predetermined end point and actively encouraged and supported to utilize every resource at hand to assist my learning (and there were many), allowed me to experience what it is like to be a learner in a contemporary context. Successful learning is not limited to knowing information. It is about knowing what information you want to know, how to find it and doing something with it. This approach to learning often involves collaboration and persistence. It is rarely straightforward; problems are encountered, decisions need to be made. Hard work is rewarded with break-through moments. The process itself fosters the development of agency and maker empowerment. I am writing this reflection three weeks after Constructing Modern Knowledge ended. Already I cannot tell you how I programmed a micro-controller in any detail. However, if you were to ask me now to help you program one, I would willingly help. I know I can find the resources I need. I know that two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears and two minds focused on a problem can trouble-shoot more effectively than one. I know that with persistence we will reach our goal, and I know what it feels like to invest so much, to feel frustrated, to work hard and then to break-through. Constructing Modern Knowledge has been a transformative experience. It has amplified and personalized what is means to be a 21st century learner.
For four days, throughout the ups and downs, I had a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. I still wear a large smile and speak excitedly when asked about CMK. If this is what learning can feel like, surely we all deserve to learn this way.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to The Geelong College, Dr Gary Stager, Syliva Martinez, Brian Smith, Jaymes Dec and all faculty members of Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017, for the opportunity to participate in such a powerful and thought-provoking professional development experience.