It is interesting if you are interested – not everyone is.
This is a book report focused on the Martinez and Stager book “Invent to Learn”. My reaction to the book, while quite positive, is captured in my title. I think the book seriously over reaches and makes flawed assumptions regarding what proportion of students would be intrigued by the topics that are the focus of the book. Some students will be very interested. I would have been very interested as a student and am personally an active maker now. At best, I see the topics covered in the book as options among a wider selection of opportunities that might be made available to students.
My wife likes to describe this broader perspective as the 20% plan. This phrase refers to the motivating opportunity Google once offered employees to work on a project of personal interest as part of their commitment to the company. Of course, it was unclear what the 20% represented in real time – 20% of 60 hours still leaves more dedicated and inflexible time than the work week most assume. Google has also backed away from this ideal to focus on a smaller and carefully selected group of projects. I will leave it to you to evaluate the implementation of a similar model in education and to consider whether my observations about Google may also end up applying in educational settings (20% is misleading because it is likely additional rather than reallocated time and Google finally took a look at the bottom line or maybe brought a greater focus to the core business and backed away from encouraging such activity).
Makers do things for themselves. The immerse themselves in projects that to some extent are self defined and self directed. The collection of areas used as examples in Invent to Learn include programming, electronics, robotics, and fabrication. Most examples are technology-based, but a limited amount of attention considers more “old school” construction resources – cardboard, string, springs, and other stuff. If the maker movement interests you, the book does a great job of identifying information sources and physical resources for getting started.
Some reactions and/or related thoughts:
1) The research section of the book was one-sided and weak. I had some experiences working with LOGO and middle school students. I wrote about “programming to learn” and I carefully reviewed the fairly substantial research on the potential benefits of involving younger students in programming. At the time, the move was away from “computers for computers sake” (i.e., programming) and more toward whether programming experiences would develop general cognitive skills (e.g., problem solving). Some of the meta-analyses of these individual studies appear in the most prestigious educational research journals and seem to question the value of programming at the level of commitment that was being made by most middle schools. I have read all of the books mentioned in Invent to Learn written by Papert so I am aware of the arguments that seem so appealing to the authors. Perhaps the focus here is truly on learning to program because programming can be vocational skill. I would accept this position, but then I would return to the question of how many students would be interested (see my title). In my opinion, serious scholarship requires the identification of the existing literature – pro and con. Hence, I see this as a useful “methods” book for what might be an elective area and not a well research justification for a general change in the curriculum.
2) Why these topics? Is it because the areas emphasized are in some way more relevant than other areas of study (technology and new manufacturing methods)? What about options?
I have a long term interest in school-based, field biology projects. I spent some years associated with a program funded by the state Game and Fish Department that focused on the cultivation and study of habitats (OWLS – outdoor wildlife learning sites). The core idea was to develop small areas of land near schools as habitats – most were small patches of native prairie. Some were simply plots including butterfly gardens, bird houses and feeders, etc. and some in more rural settings might be several acres in size that bordered a pond or stream. Such ventures were developed to incorporate local history (state history is required), biology/ecology, communication, data collection and analysis. I was involved as the technology person – probe use, digital photography, web sites developed for communication among program participants and presentation to the general public. This type of project bears some similarity to schools that sponsor a school garden and use this resource to explore biology, nutrition, and exercise.
These experiences taught me some interesting things about changing the curriculum and project based learning. I learned that teacher passions vary and commitments change with personnel. The projects I mention are challenging because they require an investment of time over time and a critical part of the time involved with projects that make use of plants is that these projects do not mesh well with the school calendar. You cannot ignore the plants over the summer as you might equipment stored in the back room. There was typically money for the materials but not for the personnel. If there was not a teacher committed to maintain the garden over the summer, the plot turned to weeds, the administrators were embarrassed by the appearance of the school yard, and the plot was returned to grass because it was far easier to maintain.
I think I can describe hands-on experiences growing things in a way that argues for educational value. A wide variety of experiences have educational benefits. I liked the argument that technology exists all around us and is not limited to the stereotypical notion that technology involves programmers putting in hour after hour in a room relating to a computer. I like the counter-intuitive argument that technology can take us out of the classroom into the world and allow us the means to investigate that world. Students receive far to few of these experiences.
Again, I return to the question of whether the book argues for a specific addition to what schools already do or whether the commitments reviewed are a proxy for the notion of “deep electives” and choice. Can making apply to gardening in the same way it applies to fabrication?
3) It is inaccurate to represent schools as having no opportunities for passion-based learning. I would suggest that athletics and arts (music, theater, etc.) are obvious examples. Such activities are school sponsored extra-curricular activities often involving part of the school day (a scheduled open period). Sports and arts have advocates claiming learning outcomes that warrant the time and resources allocated. Each area also has critics questioning the time allocated to what might be seen as a distraction from a core mission.
Other “clubs” do exist with differing levels of participation from location to location. Is this book about an area of emphasis that is to receive the level of attention focused on athletics or the arts, but with the focus that is more typical of a club?
4) Do students really want to be independent, self-guided, deep learners? The answer from the book would seem to be – “yes, they just are never really given the chance.” I wonder. Existing clubs focused on the topics described in the book do sometimes exist and have a loyal, but small clientele. Anecdotal reasoning is a serious problem in thinking about educational practice. Assuming that the passion of a specific student you may know explains what would interest most students is dangerous. My experience with similar issues comes from higher ed. The university experience actually offers students a great deal of flexibility in selecting courses as long as general requirements are met. Beyond this general flexibility in the selection of courses, the department in which I work offers specific individualized opportunities – readings and special projects – that would allow a student to identify a topic, develop a learning plan, and with faculty supervision generate a product. I can tell you based on my experience as a department administrator that these opportunities are very seldom utilized. I wonder why? Is it possible that these opportunities just come too late and students have long since given in to the notion that education is something done to them and not something they, with assistance, do for themselves,