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A Year in the Making: The Second Lesson My New Year's Resolution Taught Me about Next Gen Learning

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By Liza Veto, Program Officer, Mass IDEAS, Next Generation Learning Challenges

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I set one New Year's resolution in 2017: to take a creative class each month of the year. My resolution continued a tradition I started a few years ago, when I decided to use fun resolutions to prompt myself to make time for joyful things.

This is the second post in a series about my experiences implementing my resolution throughout last year. While I knew I would learn a bunch of crafts, I didn't anticipate all of the understanding about next generation learning I would gain along the way. This post describes the second lesson I learned, offers some insights I gained by reflecting on that lesson, and provides additional resources about maker learning and building your own Year in the Making.

Lesson #2: Learning-by-making provides a different sense of accomplishment than writing a paper or acing a test.
Lesson learned: March 2017, paper marbling

In the first blog post in this series, I discussed how making provides a different type of learning than most traditional schools offer. This year, making also reminded me of the thrill that comes from learning something brand new and being wowed by the results.

Throughout my career, I have had the kind of jobs where "deliverables" are things like meetings and papers and presentations--in other words, intangible products. Sure, I feel good when I facilitate a productive meeting or write an email or a paper that helps people understand content; both those activities and how I feel when they go well are familiar to me. But this year, even as I experienced the challenging side of making, I also experienced a special reward when my projects were complete. And boy, could it be gratifying.

Marbling is an ancient Asian art in which paint is floated on top of a bath of viscous liquid and transferred to a surface like paper or fabric. The creative element comes in the color selection and the arrangement of paint with combs, skewers, and other tools to develop designs on the surface of the liquid, which then transfer to the paper. Each design is unique, and different effects can be achieved by reusing the same bath, trying different amounts and types of paint, and varying the materials that are being painted (e.g. paper, fabric, pottery, glass). This is a very hands-on type of craft.

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I had zero experience when I arrived at my one-day class with Hajosy Arts, but after learning several techniques and tricks from a seasoned teacher (for example, how to roll a three-dimensional object like a paper lantern through the paint), I left that day with papers that didn't look like they were made by a newbie. I was (and am) proud to say, "Yes, I made those." 

My sense of pride came from creating them with my hands, contrasting with my usual daily work of developing intangible deliverables exclusively with my brain. I experimented with different paints and arrangements before arriving at my one-of-a-kind designs; there was nothing formulaic in what I did that day except the basic steps of putting paint in the bath, transferring paint to paper, and drying my products. 

The surprise of the reveal also played into my sense of fulfillment; pulling the paper off the paint and finding it even better looking than I imagined felt more rewarding than pulling a report off a printer. The lanterns felt particularly magical; after working in two dimensions all morning, my mind was blown after lunch when the teacher showed us how to transfer the paint from the flat surface of the bath to a paper globe. That one activity opened a whole new world of objects to marble (who knew flower pots were an option?!?).

Reflections and Insights

I was 45 when I took paper marbling. What if I had learning experiences like this throughout my education? As I think back on this past year, I envy students who have making incorporated into their learning as early as preschool or elementary school.

During my own K-12 experience, classes were offered primarily in a lecture format, with occasional opportunities for small group work or a science lab. Students who experience making as one of their many learning modalities have a more expansive toolkit to draw from. Instead of just thinking about things with their brains, they can do them with their hands. They can puzzle through assignments and employ a variety of strategies for solving real-world problems.

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At the same time, I wonder, why didn't the "great" schools I attended incorporate making? Though I occasionally had teachers and professors who allowed for a creative riff on a standard assignment, on the whole, making was usually relegated to extracurricular activities and weekends, like knitting was for me. (However, those creative riffs led to learning that stuck; I still know the parts of a cell from 10th grade biology because Ms. Russo let me build a gigantic foam model with removable pieces for one of my assignments.)

In my paper marbling class, even when my creations didn't turn out the way I intended, I was more engaged than in many traditional academic courses over the years. And I certainly learned significantly more about the history of papermaking and arts (social studies), properties and viscosity of different paints and baths (chemistry), and how to achieve various effects through motion and tools (physics, engineering) than I knew before the course began. Most importantly, it made me want to learn more about marbling and other paper arts, and to try it again. How would schools be different if student-makers felt this way in every class?

Want to learn more about the benefits of maker learning? Check out the resources from Digital Promise, which include a primer on maker learning, a Maker Learning Leadership Framework for creating sustainable programs, and other resources. 

Tip for crafting your own Year in the Making: Makers like Cristina Hajosy of Hajosy Arts often provide instruction about their crafts in multiple locations, including art schools like the Eliot School here in Boston, museums like Brockton's Fuller Craft Museum, specialty shops, fairs or markets, and even their homes. If you find makers whose crafts and teaching styles work for you, be sure to ask where else they teach.

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