20 February 2011

Tinkering for the 21st century learner

Today I came across two texts from different sources which essentially proffered the same message: the importance of trial and error in the learning process. Both Michael Duffy’s essay Try, Try Again in the Sydney Morning Herald and Dr John Seeley Brown’s interview in the PBS doco Digital Media (thanks to http://bluyonder.wordpress.com/ for the tip) discussed the virtues of trying, failing and trying again.

Michael Duffy’s essay quotes from a book called Being Wrong by American journalist Kathryn Schulz. Schulz writes:

''Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honourable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage…''
''And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.''

In his interview, Dr John Seely Brown begins by discussing ‘the questing disposition’, by referring to specific examples of gamers and surfers who, within their respective communities, share a curiosity and passion which generates natural learning. Dr Brown states that one of the chief skills needed by the children of today - to ensure they will be able to navigate the world of the future - is a ‘love of embracing change’.  His central premise is that we need to teach students the value of tinkering, of playing with a problem in an attempt to solve it. By tinkering, we are experimenting with things ourselves, asking ‘Does this fit?’, ‘Is this a match?’ etc. Dr Brown invites us to consider that ‘Tinkering brings thought and action together in some very powerful, magical ways.’

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if the academic community accepted Schulz’s opening sentence as a given? Imagine if all students saw errors as learning opportunities, chances to improve, a reason to try, try again? How can we best offer students the opportunity to tinker with ideas, concepts, words, numbers, as well as objects and projects? What a challenge for us!

I believe that tinkering has a place in all real and lasting learning. The following variables would make this possible:
  1. Time: to play, to think, to scrap, to start over, to collaborate
  2. Curiosity
  3. Passion and enthusiasm
  4. Genuine interest in the product/skill
  5. Facilitation rather than explication on behalf of teachers and mentors
  6. A ‘mastery-oriented’ approach (Dweck)
  7. More time!
What does this mean for schools when ‘being right’ is often the only way to awards and success? For the purposes of this post, I would like to offer only two suggestions from an endless list of possibilities.

The first is that student work be constructed and evaluated over time. Students should have the opportunity to thoroughly explore whatever concepts are being taught from all angles and with as varied tools as are appropriate. Grades (while they are still around) should come not from a single measure but from a range of assessments that offer students diverse ways to achieve. This happens currently in many schools and subjects and is mandated by a number of state education departments.

Teachers need to know how their students are progressing in the course via the ongoing work in their books or that which they submit for feedback. If grades for a course come from ‘end of course’ exams, then it can be very difficult to get students to submit tasks along the way. If the assessment is a combination of end of course exams and an accumulation of tasks completed throughout the course, then students are going to be more motivated to engage in the process. If there are no exams (Will it ever happen?) then there is real opportunity to assess cumulatively.

The second suggestion is that we reward students for being engaged and effective learners. This ties in with my post on Mindset and Praise but it also means giving positive reinforcement (and awards and rewards) to students during the process of learning, not just at the end when the course is complete. When the trial and error method is modelled by teachers, I see that students in these classes often feel a greater sense of academic freedom. The reinforcement evolves not only from explicit language in the classroom, but also from witnessing the process.

Perhaps if we want to challenge ‘I must be right’ thinking, we have to be prepared to be wrong. If we demonstrate what John Seely Brown’s called the questing disposition, then we might generate it in our students. 

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