Studies show that a curious mind is fertile ground for learning, so combining the freedom of play and exploration with more structured learning goals is a more powerful formula than a 100% teacher driven approach to lessons (Gruber, 2014). If you can set aside your notions about what a classroom should sound, smell or look like, you will discover that constructionist learning environments work well to foster authentic inquiry (STEM/STEAM), and the creative use of available resources (innovation). Facilitating a constructivist or constructionist learning space can be intimidating to many, but rest assured it can be done in a structured and mindful manner, especially when combined with good documentation.
Cute Case Study
In my new role as STEM lab manager for the Asheville Museum of Science, I have the honor of designing STEM/STEAM related learning experiences for all ages. The age group I am currently most excited about are children aged two to five. Twice a month at the museum we offer a preschool STEM program called Little Explorers Club (LEC). I am learning how to use prompts with these very young learners to facilitate an informal constructionist learning space.
In LEC, we practice skills like measurement, color mixing, counting, cutting, sharing ideas, and now the design cycle. A successful LEC based on prompts took place in September. The theme was inventors. We read What Do You Do with an Idea by Kobi Yamada and The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, & Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty. These books tell stories of a diverse range of makers without glossing over the frustration and self doubt that being an inventor can bring.
After our story time, participants were asked to draw a design of something that helps mom or dad clean up. After sketching with crayons, they were asked to gather materials to make a 3D model of their idea.
If we define success by consistency in form between original idea, to sketch, to 3D model, the four to five years olds were the most successful at this open ended design challenge.
Another surprising moment came when I witnessed two participants standing at the materials table. They were holding their sketch in one hand, counting the parts that made up their drawing, then gathering the exact same amount of parts in felt squares. In this one behavior at the materials table, these young learners showed number sense, as well as the ability to translate a 2D model into a 3D model of an idea.
By the end of our 45 minute program, at least one participant went through several iterations of a cleaning robot, until he discovered the key to stabilizing tall, narrow structures. Yet another participant made an object that had a flag or cape component that was tested with a fan. “It works!” proclaimed the proud inventor after testing. And he was right to celebrate, his design did not fall apart when tested. Having a first prototype that works enough to test is a big deal, for a maker of any age. I was awe struck to see such young learners thrive and struggle through the design process. Many participants did not finish their designs in the time allotted and elected to take some extra materials along with their prototype, to finish building at home.
Plan, Play or Prompt
The rewarding part of working in a learning environment designed for constructionism, is standing back and witnessing the creativity and curiosity that students are naturally gifted with, when allowed to explore without overt adult direction. Before you judge a student for being “off task” ask yourself, is she acting out of curiosity and taking risks to answer her own questions? If so, stand back and observe.
Over structuring a lesson kills opportunity for students to develop and practice agency and curiosity of their own. Allowing time for play and exploration in science, time that is free of assessment and the pressures of productivity, is key to not only creating a joyful atmosphere for students to learn in, it is also key to their learning. We as facilitators need to optimize what, to some, looks like chaos or to others like “just play.”
That is where the well designed prompt, a respect for play, and informed planning comes in. If you only have access to learners for a short time, such as in a museum or library setting, focus your hard work into planning a good prompt. For example, is one hour a safe space to play with the idea of lots of failure with very young learners? Maybe not. Maybe exposure to well planned experiences that feel like play, especially when compared to regular school, are a better model.
That said, if you have long term relationships with your learners, you will not regret making the time and space to explore through play and failed attempts, within a well curated environment. Once you pick the inspiring artifacts or tools to expose learners to, spend your hard work planning how to help learners answer their own questions.
Discovering science through open exploration, or constructivism, breeds entrepreneurialism, self-direction, empathy, curiosity and creativity – all superpowers that an uncertain future will most certainly reward. Furthermore, having a literacy about how things are made (constructionism), including increasingly complex technologies, will empower learners in ways we can’t even imagine.
Try beginning a unit with the open exploration of materials and tools relevant to your unit and allow their natural curiosities to blossom. For instance, rather than over plan a lesson on microscopy, keep a microscope handy for spontaneous questions about the hidden structures of everyday things from a human eyelash to an insect’s parts. Explore electricity with lots of different tools, from LEDs, and 9volts to scraps of wire and harvested e-waste (deconstructed toys make good sources) motors and fans.
See what learners gravitate towards, then work your lessons in from that entry point. Some will focus on getting lights to work brighter and brighter (voltage, series or parallel circuits) and others may focus on making things move (mechatronics) with motors and craft materials. Through honoring the natural diversity of learning styles that your learners are allowed to express, and then share with each other, you may find that your entire electricity unit will be covered. Notice what questions and or creative ideas your learners engage with, as they interact with the learning environment you took care to design. In this manner, you can utilize all three tools (play, prompts, and planning) in an optimized manner.