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“The role of the teacher is to create conditions for invention rather than provide ready made knowledge” – Seymour Papert
In the maker-centred classroom sometimes we can get caught up with the bright shiny new technologies that students can have access to. Yes, they are excellent and engage students, amplify learning and challenge them in many ways. The products and projects the students complete and make are complex and creative. But what about making, genuine hands on learning?
Rather than provide the students with more technology, give the students are cereal box and see if they can create a marble roller. Set some boundaries and guidelines, only 30cm of masking tape and no extra cardboard. Within minutes students were drawing, designing, collaborating ideas and thinking. Listening to their conversations, they started to use terms like angle, slope, gravity, friction and momentum. All of this without direct instruction and teacher centred learning. Allowing the students to play and be curious lends to rich and purposeful learning.
Using this curiosity as the launch, Rube Goldberg Machines raised the bar for critical thinking and problem solving in making. The idea for this project was conceived during a discussion my colleagues and I were having when we were constructing the Year 5 curriculum here at The Geelong College. It was inspired by the classic board game ‘Mousetrap.’ The issue for us was how do we inspire and engage the students to want to complete a project that has a high possibility of not working.
“Knowledge is the consequence of experience” – Piaget
Showing a clip of a young boy narrating his Rube Goldberg Machine project showed the students that anything was possible and to search for ways to overcome a very complex problem. Rube Goldberg Machines are a sensational way to build teamwork and camaraderie amongst the peer group. In small teams, students learn to collaborate, iterate, challenge each other, empathise, compromise and use their strengths to work towards possible solutions.
The project focused on students learning through rigor and hard fun as they constantly designed, tested and redesigned to continually find ways to overcome the many difficulties when constructing such a complex machine. It was very frustrating for most and observing from a distance, most coped with the constant disappointment of a test not working or an idea not followed through.
If I reflect on the project, which is now in its third year, what the students gain from it educationally is the ability to see that mistakes and failures are a very important part of their development. That regular challenges should be met head on and not dismissed. Working with others and compromising and discussing possible solutions generally leads to navigating through a complex problem. That playing and making is innate in all young people and should be encouraged, not forgotten because after all, the most powerful learning is often when we’re not directed, it’s when learning is unstructured and exploratory.