Structuring Classrooms for Exploration, Risk-Taking and Engineering from The 21st Century Principal by J. Robinson

Structuring Classrooms for Exploration, Risk-Taking and Engineering
“But engineering isn’t about perfect solutions; it’s about doing the best you can with limited resources.” Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
As Randy Pausch suggests, engineering isn't about "looking for the one right answer or perfect solution." Engineering is about looking for solutions that work. While our policymakers and politicians talk incessantly about the need for more engineers and scientists, they advocate for a system of education of standardization and accountability that is in some ways direct contradiction to the kinds of tasks and thinking engineers and scientists do.

According to Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, authors of the book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,
“The past few decades have been a dark time in many schools. Emphasis on high stakes testing, teaching to the test, de-professionalizing teachers, and depending on data rather than teacher expertise has created classrooms that are increasingly devoid of play, rich materials, and time to do projects.”
With classrooms that are bleak and where test scores dictate every move, it is no wonder our schools are rapidly becoming places where no one wants to be. Why can't we reduce a drop out rate that seems to stubbornly persist no matter what we do? Why do our students stare at us with blank expressions from their uniform rows of desks? Why are our so many of our students so disengaged from school and see it the last place they want to be? It is because our schools have become prisons of standardization where creativity and inventiveness are sacrificed for conformity. It is because of an emphasis on comparing student test scores for the purpose of determining school effectiveness and  teacher/principal effectiveness which fosters more test-prep and teaching to the test. These reforms dictated through NCLB and Race to the Top have made our schools “places devoid of play, rich materials and time to do projects” as Martinez and Stager describe it. That's why no one wants to be there.

What is our alternative? How can we create classrooms and schools where learning is the focus again, not just test scores? How can we make our schools into places where our kids want to be and want to learn? How can we have schools that encourage the kinds of tasks and thinking engineers and scientists do? The answer lies in turning our schools into places where students can “make, tinker, engineer” to use the terms of Martinez and Stager.

I am just now beginning my reading  of Martinez and Stager’s book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and I am intrigued by what they propose. Martinez and Stager point to all the “amazing tools, materials, and skills that turn us all into makers.” We are all "makers" and "tinkerers" at heart they say, which means we can do as these authors suggest and use "technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need" and "bring engineering, design, and computer science to the masses.” Furthermore, we can create the kinds of learning places where “Children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn.”

But what would a classroom that emphasizes “making, tinkering, and engineering” look like? Martinez and Stager will no doubt answer that question in their book, but I suspect that some of the characteristics of such a classroom would be like the following.
  • Structured for exploration: The physical space would not be structured with a teacher’s desk or podium-presentation equipment at the center. Instead, space would be structured for collaboration, for individual learning, and for student-centered learning activity. A variety of high-tech and low-tech materials and equipment would be available for making, tinkering and inventing.
  • Structured for risk-taking: The classroom is purposely designed to allow students to take risks in learning and in trying new ideas. Mistakes are allowed and actually encouraged. Experimentation is the rule, not conformity.
  • Structured for inquiry: Students asking their own questions rather than answering predetermined questions provided by a teacher is the norm for classrooms structured for inquiry. Students pose the questions and their learning comes from the exploration and search for answers to those questions.
  • Structured for students: The classroom would be structured for students, not teachers, not principals, not policymakers and not politicians. Too much of what we currently do in the classroom is done to satisfy politicians with agendas and leaders with egos. Classrooms structured for students exist for student learning and places them at the center.
One can perhaps argue whether our schools are going through “dark times” as Martinez and Stager suggest. It probably depends on your perspective of standardization and testing. But, it is difficult to deny that some aspects of our standardization-accountability movement are turning schools into places where creativity and invention are devalued in favor of conformity and test-prep, and those who continue to push for more testing and more standardized curriculum need to be aware of what they may be trading in to obtain those things.

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