With Edith Ackermann centerstage, what can start out as a question about keychains can quickly turn into a “masterclass in education theory”. To get the full context, check out Dr. Ackermann’s brilliant lecture at the 2016 FabLearn Conference here (the part about keychains and designing with purpose starts around minute 54). So how do we go from keychains to Piaget to Minsky to Papert? Well, as Ackermann suggests, it’s a “process of abstraction”.
There’s a lot to unwrap in what she says in this brief seven or eight minutes, and I’m not going to be able to cover the scope or depth it deserves. Rather, I’d like to discuss the conversation through a lens that I hope to explore more as a FabLearn Fellow, which is what happens during the process of making. During the conversation, Ackermann explains that “constructing new knowledge is about the process of abstraction – from concrete to abstract”. So whatever a student makes, whether it’s a keychain that lights up or a paper circuit, students are thrust into abstraction by way of creation. In asking students to make a keychain we are also asking them to deconstruct that keychain in their mind so that they can re-contextualize/re-create it.
Thus it’s through the process of making and design that students internalize new experiences and form new knowledge. But, as Ackermann explains, “knowledge is (derived from) experience, and actively constructed and re-constructed by subjects in interaction with their worlds” (Ackermann 2007). As students create and are given new projects – let’s say they move from making a keychain that lights up to making a paper circuit with LEDs – they encounter new challenges and are forced to confront their assumptions about their world. This could be that the LEDs on their paper circuit don’t light up. Then the student must ask herself why the LEDs aren’t lighting, which causes her to reexamine what assumptions she’s made. The student may have to investigate what she knows about the circuitry and electric current. As Ackermann explains, this is the process of creating cognitive invariants, or as she explains by quoting Marvin Minsky, “to understand something means to understand it in three ways”.
One could even examine the process of making and design outside of the context of academic learning, and instead, focus on the psychological and therapeutic implications of it. I hope to explore this more in future blog posts. But just to scratch the surface, I wonder how can the process of making and design challenge core assumptions students make about themselves? For example, if a student encounters a problem, and in turn expresses the belief that she can’t do it, how can we as teachers encourage her to challenge this fixed assumption? How can we allow her to explore different choices in response to frustration, and failure, and in turn, weigh the pros and cons of these choices?
Thus, the keychain is what Ackermann calls an “intermediary object” standing in place of the student’s internalized experience. This is what Ackermann calls “intelligent form-making, turning ideas into a tangible artifact”. Of course, when there is something that becomes tangible, it can be shared. It’s in these sharing moments that we as teachers and co-learners find ourselves with an opportunity to interface with the internal learning process of our students, gaining a window into how they construct knowledge and their emotional relationship to learning.