Stop Waiting to Love Learning Again – Reflections on “The Gears of My Childhood”

I’ve been a little worried lately. Not about the world, or politics, or COVID – well yes, of course about those things, but lately I’ve been mostly worried that I’ve forgotten how to teach. I feel out of practice and out of touch. Everyone in education is a bit out of practice, having spent a lot of time teaching remotely, learning how to use Zoom, learning how to be somewhat engaging for our students online, and learning how to connect with people at a distance. In the midst of all that I have also been transitioning from an established position in a school where I taught for 20 years to a FabLab Lead teacher role in the Global Center for Digital Innovation (GCDI) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s intimidating, exciting, and amorphous. My job description is all about collaborating with classroom teachers and helping integrate maker education and digital fabrication into content areas, inspiring kids of all ages to create prototypes of new and innovative ideas, and giving community members a space to try their hand at entrepreneurialism. It is truly a dream job! And so far, I’m still just dreaming about it.  


Reflectively, I feel like I am pretty good with change and I love a challenge, however, it’s the delay that has made me nervous. In the midst of a global pandemic, the building construction stalled and an opening date of August 2021 has been pushed back; all the way back to – not yet. A tentative “move-in” date of April 2021, has been promised and I am cautiously hopeful.  Eight months of planning at first seemed a blessing. But some of my confidence has waned with the passing months. How will I get the space ready for kids in time for summer camp?  Do I remember how to use all of the equipment? What supplies do I need to order? How long does it realistically take to put together a full-sized ShopBot? And most importantly, do I remember how to teach?


Of course, I haven’t been idle for 8 months. I have been working with students the whole time. This year teaching has been more informal and focused on small groups of students who want coaching on soldering, or laser cutting, or Fusion 360. I have facilitated professional development workshops for teachers both in person and virtually. I have been productive and contributed to the school community. In many ways, it has been the best teaching experience of my career. But I just can’t shake that feeling of uneasiness while I wait…


Fast forward to about a week ago, when I read, “The Gears of My Childhood” by Seymour Papert.  Papert begins by explaining how much he loved cars as a child and how he found an affinity for understanding the interactions of gears – particularly the differential.  Honestly, my first thought was, “Oh no, do I need to understand a differential?”  Then I realized the story was really about how Papert credits the experience of loving gears and being able to use a differential as a model of learning for his successes in mathematics.  He states, “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.”  I completely agree.  When knowledge can be connected to previous experiences or mental models it fits within a student’s mind and can be more easily learned.  But it must also be loved, like Papert loved gears, to be transformative. 


After Papert pointed it out, it seems so obvious that our ability to learn is tangled up in our emotions.  As a child, I found comfort in the natural world.  I loved figuring out how bugs and plants and mammals all interacted and needed each other.  It is no surprise that my major in college was Biology.  I loved systems – at first, the only systems I could see well were ecological, then I started seeing systems in things like bicycles, and eventually, I started seeing systems in the art of teaching.  It became fun to plan lessons for students that sparked inquiry and wonder.  Students weren’t aware of all the “strings” holding together a complex unit plan, like a food web, intertwined that lead them toward self-discovery and hopefully a love for learning, but they were there.  Papert wrote, “The understanding of learning must be genetic. It must refer to the genesis of knowledge.”  Maybe it is the science teacher in me that wonders if this statement was a bit of a joke, but I like the idea that it is the genesis or beginnings of learning that impacts students the most.  It includes the how, when, and where of learning.  Now one of my favorite systems to observe is a group of students highly invested in brainstorming solutions or making a new design, they invest both their minds and emotions when working on a meaningful problem.  There is a genuine sense of pride, maybe even love, in creating something out of nothing.  Maker education provides kids with the opportunity to examine how things work, how systems are interconnected, and how they can influence those systems through innovation and creation.


Perhaps the uneasiness I’ve been feeling lately has stemmed from the fact that I’ve been in limbo, not really knowing how things in my life are connected or how our world in Pandemic will adhere to the previous rules of cause and effect. Patterns have changed; interactions are no longer predictable.  It’s been a dark year and I feel like maybe my fears about teaching are simply a manifestation of my fears about the world.  I am looking forward to awakening a renewed love of learning for myself and my students in the GCDI and creating lessons with intertwined “strings” that lead students to new discoveries about themselves and their world.  That’s why I see April as a date for change, for moving forward, for taking back some control, and a date to just stop waiting.   I know moving into the new FabLab is really only a symbol, however, I need it and I will take it!


Photo Credit: Betty A. Proctor, Chattanooga State Community College

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