I had the privilege of spending part of my childhood on a picturesque dairy farm at the end of a gravel road, which was at the edge of my small Minnesota town. Like most Minnesota farms, our home was surrounded by a variety of barns, machinery sheds, and vast open spaces. Before the days of smartphones and even most video games, my siblings and I spent our days exploring, riding trail bikes through the surrounding cornfields, and building things…all while being mostly unsupervised. No lost fingers or toes, just a few cuts and bruises and the occasional scar. Like most kids, we had no idea how good life was.
I found that an important part of this experience was watching and helping my dad build things, as well as receiving support from a local cabinet maker who rented space for his business. Nearly everyday I spent a few hours in our basement workshop building whatever I could imagine. The results included both the practical and artistic, from building a workbench to constructing a push cart car from plans I found in my Cub Scouts book. I also remember building lots of wooden swords, most of them fashioned like the big-bladed middle eastern sword used by Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, played by the actor Morgan Freeman.
I realize not everyone has had these experiences as a child, and yet can still lead a successful life, but I was reminded of the importance of these conditions the other week as I listened to school principal and 2016 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, Dr. Winston Sakurai share findings from a recent research study he conducted where he looked at common experiences and traits of other Digital Principal Awardees. Among his findings, he found that these individuals had often come from blue collar families, had been active in school but were struggling learners, played outdoors, were inquisitive, and built things.
These traits, and especially the part about struggling learners who built things, resonates with me and reminds me of the importance of allowing students the chance to demonstrate learning through many avenues. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons there has been a big movement in schools to develop maker spaces that allow students to design and fabricate their own creations. Sadly, I find it woefully ironic that although this was my natural tendency towards leaning, as a child I was rarely given a chance to demonstrate my learning through these methods. Instead, like many students, despite clear strengths in other areas, I struggled to meet my teachers expectations in traditional forms of learning and assessment. If only a teacher would have given me a chance to build something…
So what can you do as a teacher or parent to encourage students to build?
I’m sure there are many experts who have already answered this question, and you can read some of their articles here, or here, or here. So I’ll just speak from my personal experience as a young boy who had his own makery. Here is what was important to me:
As a young boy, I had almost unfettered access to space and tools to build my creations. Amazingly, I was allowed to use our electric bandsaw, unsupervised, from the young age of 6! Can you imagine letting your young kids use an electric saw in the basement without any supervision? As a parent of a 6 year old, it’s hard for me to imagine doing this, especially if my wife found out. Still, this experience built my confidence and demonstrated in tangible ways my parent’s trust in my ability. Of course, I was know dummy, I knew that the saw was dangerous and that I had to be extra careful when using it, which built my sense of personal responsibility.
Although I mention that I was allowed to work in the workshop by myself, there were adults in my life who would check in and help me overcome various obstacles in my designs. Our neighborly cabinet maker would often give me scraps of wood for my creations, but not before I produced a plan on paper with measurements and a list of supplies, which we would then go over together. I also remember my dad helping me in countless ways, including taking my work seriously. For instance, when building the push cart I recall him buying me real wagon wheels for the cart instead of wooden wheels that I had been unsuccessfully trying to cut out on the saw.
Freedom and Choice
At home there were no restrictions on how long I would work on various projects. Sometimes, I would work all day, while other times I would put down a project and come back to it weeks later. Of course, this isn’t as practical in a school, but the concept of freedom and choice is still important. For example, I was free to make whatever I could imagine or need. Instead of being given a prescribed task that was similar to everyone else (i.e. Make a birdhouse), I naturally looked to build things that could be solutions to my problems (i.e. a work bench, a wagon to haul wood, etc). Today, in our school’s makery I see this same concept of freedom and choice propelling our student’s work when they build with purpose. For example, this last year students in a middle school design thinking club were tasked with a design challenge to develop objects that would help reduce our school’s use of single-use plastics. The results were groups of students building a wide array of objects.
As a parent I haven’t been able to provide my kids with the same open spaces and access to tools as I had growing up, but I still do my best to get my kids using the tools we do have. From hanging pictures to changing the brakes on our car, my kids are pretty good at holding a drill or turning a wrench and expect to be included in the process. Another area where we let them experiment is in the kitchen. Since we love to cook we try to get our kids in the action when we mix, chop, bake, grill, knead, roll, or anything else they can do. Admittedly, the results are a little less uniform than when only an adult is cooking, but what’s the fun in that.
As you look at what we currently call the Maker Movement in education, you’d be forgiven for believing that like other trends in education that it may come and go, and certainly not all maker spaces are equally implemented or effective. Of course, many Montessori schools and other school programs have been making things for a long time. Still, this is often not the case in many schools, and as I look at the importance of dreaming, designing, and constructing projects from my childhood, my experiences in the workshop may have produced more authentic opportunities to learn than what happened in the classroom. So trend or not, for me and my family, we will continue to make.
So what do you think? Did your childhood involve tinkering and making things, do you wonder how you made it through with all your fingers…maybe you didn’t. Leave your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re new to Learn[ed]Leadership and you like interesting stuff, then make sure to sign up for a free monthly (or so) newsletter by clicking here or in the fancy box to your top right. Or if you want immediate updates, Like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.