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Students Learn by Making 'Stuff'

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This post is by Anne Vilen, a school designer for Expeditionary Learning schools.

Making stuff matters.

The sixth graders at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School (SELS) in Truckee, California, know this. Following their intrepid teacher, Reenie McMains, these students set off to learn the story of 4,500,000,000 years of geologic change in California. That part was just to meet the state science standards. In addition, they also studied the history of their own landscape. They interviewed neighbors and scientists. They consulted geologists. And they decided to make a movie. That involved learning all kinds of technical and artistic skills from film artists. Their "need to know" pushed them to make computer graphics; to build scientific models from eggs, sandpaper, pencils, boxes and other household items; to translate the complex vocabulary of geology and the dynamics of natural forces into everyday explanations; to shoot video while hiking mountains; to interview and record experts; and to rap (yes, rap!) about plate tectonics. You can watch the award-winning result of their learning.

The following year, McMains' students created an i-book on the various ecosystems of California, complete with links to video footage, glogs, and additional information. Their book, "All Over California's Plates," is available on iTunes.

When I look at this stuff made by children, I see something that matters not just to the students who created them, but to their families, communities, educators, and the general public. Although they are just eleven or twelve years old, McMains' students learned how to work in teams, get feedback from experts, peers, and teachers; and research and revise like real authors, artists, and designers. They grappled with and overcame the challenge of making something that makes a difference by educating and inspiring real people. 

The wide range of student-made "stuff" from schools in the Deeper Learning network, visible in the Center for Student Work, curated by Expeditionary Learning, shows that students can also change peoples' minds and hearts through polished research, proposals, and well-crafted oral histories.

I watched the SELS students' movie just after my teenage son argued that, if school were more like video games, he would be more engaged. He can spend hour after hour killing avatars and racking up "damage" as he levels up to the next gaming challenge. He's not alone in thinking that constant digital feedback creates a growth mindset that leverages learning; even researchers argue the point.

But I believe that sitting in front of a screen clicking on a mouse--whether to destroy virtual bad guys or solve more complex virtual problems--is more "shallow" than substantive. I want something deeper for my son. A teacher's expectation that students will make something real for a real audience, has the power to transform students' glazed game faces into curiosity and determination. With guidance to percolate their plans and bring them to fruition, students will seek the same kind of constructive feedback that fuels video gamers, and use it to improve their creations. Holding what they've made in their hands, students see, as we do, that making stuff is more than a game. It makes a difference.

 

 

 

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