I posted a while ago about the line between instructions and letting students figure it all out, and I said I would report back after I taught the telegraph lesson.
I started with a design meeting with our lab director and our tinkerer in residence (yes, I know, it is so cool that I work at a school that has both of these people, and I know I am super lucky), and tried a few variations. We settled on a base for the key, a base for the reciever, and the different types of wire we would have the students do. We cut the base parts out of wood on the laser cutter to make things go more quickly. Diego Fonstad figured out how easily we could have the students put things together if we used those metal brads. Angi Chau wrote out some instructions, and we shared those with the students.
I put the girls in pairs, showed them the supplies, and told them to follow the instructions. I added a rule they are familiar with, and that is before they ask me a question they have to show me where on the instructions document they are. Most of their questions can be answered by figuring out where on the instructions they are.
We were trying to use up some wire we had in the lab, so the first thing they had to do was untwist it. That was both fun and frustrating. Some girls were much better at it than others.
- Wire strippers are hard to use. A student who is rarely and expert in history turned out to be a pro with stripping wire.
- It was not clear to all students that the connections had to be metal touching metal for the telegraph to work.
- Following insructions is not easy.
At the end of the first 50 minute period I got a great statement from a student. “Mrs. Pang, this project is fun! It is really hard, but it is fun.” I wish I had that on video.
Most students finished the basic instructions early on day two, but then they had to start trouble shooting, since very few of them worked on the first try.
I don’t know if we struck exactly the right balance on instructions vs. exploration. The lesson did achieve several of my goals. The students created a working telegraph machine, and understood at least the basics of how the 19th century version worked. They had the chance to trouble shoot their own creation, and I gave almost no help, other than to remind them to check the connections and keep trying. And our conversation about invention, the role of instant communication in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much we take it for granted was rich and thoughtfull.
The student reflections highlighted the importance of checking the connections and how hard it is to untangle wire. Not part of the history curricullum, but certainly part of life’s curriculum.