“That’s Mad Work Mister”: A Reflection on How to Scaffold Self-Directed Learning

img_7086“That’s mad work mister” is a phrase that I hear a lot at the beginning of the school year.  At first, I thought that it’s good to challenge my students, even if it leads to frustration, failure and setbacks. I was afraid to do projects that would be perceived as too “babyish”.  But when I spoke to a colleague about this fear and expressed how maker can be used as a way to build frustration tolerance and to work through failures, she called into question some of my assumptions.  Essentially she asked, “Who sets out to fail at something?”  We spoke about how failure could be more frightening for students with less privilege, since they might perceive that the stakes are higher for them.

Without a doubt it’s important to learn to work through failure and fix mistakes.  This is a big part of the re-iterative process for design and making.  Though, how early should students be introduced to the challenges of failure and how much scaffolding should teachers integrate into their lessons to protect students from failure?  Also, at what point does the idea of building frustration tolerance and working through failure start to sound similar to the idea of “building grit”?  

In doing research for this post, I was surprised to find out that Jerome Bruner, the psychologist who developed the theory behind scaffolding, was a constructivist.  I was surprised by this because so much of what we talk about in maker education, which is heavily influenced by constructivist theory, has to do with self-directed learning.  I agree with Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez when they say that sometimes the best thing we can do as educators is to get out of the way.  I began wonder how we can simultaneously prevent frustrated students from giving up while also staying out of their way of learning.

Scaffolding a Maker 101 Class: Paper Circuitsimg_7077

This post is the first in a series where I’d like explore how to scaffold some common maker projects.  So where better to start than a lesson on paper circuits? Paper circuits are a great and are almost used universally for introducing circuitry and electronics. There are so many ways that paper circuits can be incorporated into the classroom, from creating holiday cards to making cardboard houses, just to name a few.  

Paper circuit playing cards: What does it mean to make and who makes?

This is usually one of my first projects, so I like to discuss during the lesson what maker class is and who makers are.  Many of my students are not familiar with the Maker movement and most have just been placed in the Maker class as opposed to having expressed an interest in it. This gives the class a different feel than say a robotics class, since some students initial attitude is that it’s just another class that they’ve been forced into taking. The challenge is getting these students excited about Maker. But this is all part of expanding the Maker/STEAM tent.

img_7094At the beginning of class, I hand out “Maker playing cards” with questions on the back. Students fill out the questions, or the makers’ “stats”, by researching the makers online. Since I teach students of color, I highlight historical makers of color. These are artists, scientists, musicians and even a heavy weight champion (Jack Johnson). I look across disciplines to demonstrate that maker is not so clearly defined, and is certainly not limited to just people working in Silicon Valley.  I you’re interested, you can download the makers-of-color cards here.  

The students pick out which Maker they want to research and answer the questions on their own.  The questions are simple and can be easily adapted based on the students. This is a simple task that the students can complete easily, which will give them momentum when they move into the next part of the project.  

Two different approaches to paper circuits

img_7081After they’ve finished the cards, I show the students how to use copper tape, LEDs and batteries to make a paper circuit. I’ve done this lesson as both individual and group projects, and I prefer it as a group project. For the individual project, students are given the task to adding a LED to their Maker playing card. Many students place the LED above the maker’s head to make it look light bulb is turning on.

As a group project, students will work together to make a poster board circuit. Each group will be given a poster board, copper tape, LEDS, batteries, battery holder and an assortment of crafts materials. Using the given material, students will make a parr circuit that lights up the LEDs.  Each group will have to integrate their maker cards into paper circuits. How they choose to go about this is up to them.

At the FabLearn conference, I was in a workshop where we made poster board circuit.  I thought what better way to scaffold a maker project then to encourage collaboration.  I think this group approach works much better than students working on individual cards.

There are two scaffolding strategies used in the above lesson. The first is to set the students up for immediate success before they move on to the more challenging part of the project. By setting them up for success, they are more invested in finishing future tasks.  Their first task is just to research the makers and answer the questions on the back of the card. They could either google the makers, or to make it even simpler, they could read articles on the makers that the teacher researched and printed ahead of time. The second strategy is to encourage students to work together. By encouraging them to work together, they are able to help and teach each other.  This allows the teacher to “get out of the way”, while also providing an environment where students can work together to overcome some of the challenges.  

As I gain more experience teaching maker, I find myself reflecting more on the process of making rather than what products the students will make.  For my students, a lot of the projects and material we’re covering is new, so it’s exciting.  I believe if I can set my students up for more successes early on, they will be willing to take on greater risks later.