Making Sense of Maker Theories

I recently created a new lesson plan for teaching electrical conductivity in my Honors Chemistry class.  In the past, I’ve taught the topic of conductivity in a pretty traditional way: I’ve described to students how bonding type determines whether something is conductive or not, and then expected students to identify chemical substances as conductive based on formulas or descriptions.  In this new lesson, my students will get to explore electrical conductivity by creating a music video with the help of a Makey Makey, a Scratch program, and a variety of household objects.  If you haven’t watched the video I created as an example to introduce the project to my students, check it out here.

In CEP 811 this week, we watched Richard Culatta’s TED talk entitled “Reimagining Learning“, and it made me feel even more excited about trying out my new lesson.  In his talk, Culatta emphasized that technology should not just be used to replace our current tools and continue to let education be about passive transmission of information.  Instead, he challenged his audience to imagine the ways that technology can create powerful transformation in learning and teaching.  I see aspects of this in my new lesson.  Rather than having to wait until I grade a worksheet or a quiz, my students will get immediate feedback about whether they understand conductivity:  no sound will be produced if an object is not conductive!  And the lesson is arranged around a problem that students must collaboratively solve, in a way that would not be possible without the technologyHow can we make music from household objects?

As I contemplated this and a variety of learning theories this week for class, I realized that my new lesson will have a greater impact on students’ learning not just because of the technology they use, but also because of the learning theories underlying this redesign.  My old way of teaching this concept is based on instructivism, with me clearly explaining the information to students and asking them to demonstrate their understanding in a traditional way.  The new lesson uses aspects of both constructivism and experiential learning to teach this concept in a more engaging and more effective way.

Constructivism:

Constructivism is a theory that posits that students learn best when they are given guided opportunities to construct their own understanding of a concept.  As a science teacher, I have found this learning theory to be a very powerful way to help my students understand the scientific processes at work in the world around them, especially for concepts that they can experience in tangible ways.  Granted, it takes longer to teach a concept in this way, but research shows that learners are more engaged and their mental schema are more deeply changed as a result.  The image below describes the roles of teachers, students, and the environment in a constructivist learning environment:

In his 2012 paper entitled “Millennial Expectations and Constructivist Methodologies”, Timothy Carter describes how especially powerful constructivist approaches can be for current high school students, who are part of the Millennial Generation.  According to Carter, many recent studies show that Millennials are used to learning by trial-and-error, learning in socially connected and collaborative ways, and seeking out mentors for help on an as-needed basis, rather than being told what to know by an expert.  This fits well with a constructivist theory of learning, in which the teacher is a facilitator for learning that guides students as they carry out activities and seek out resources that help them construct a new understanding of the world.

My new lesson is built on constructivist theory, in that students make initial observations about what is possible with the MakeyMakey tool and conductive materials, conduct an exploration to discover what other materials work, and then create products (both video and written) that demonstrate their understanding of the underlying concepts.  They will rely on each other and on me as the teacher to guide them in this process, along with finding online resources to help them figure out how to use the MakeyMakey and Scratch program.

Experiential Learning:

The other main learning theory supporting my new lesson plan is Experiential Learning.  David Kolb, who is credited with this theory, explains that learning occurs in a cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting, as shown in the diagram below.

I am struck by the importance of the reflection and acting parts of this cycle.  Reflection requires the learner to connect their experience with prior knowledge, and acting requires them to transfer their knowledge to new situations.  The cyclical nature of this process is also important, as it requires iterative play and change.  In his 2010 paper, Kolb emphasizes the importance of play in the learning process.  It’s easy to justify play in an elementary classroom, but it is often pushed to the side in favor of “rigorous standards” as students enter high school.  Kolb describes an adult softball league and how important learning occurs as they navigate through uncertainty, feel free to exhibit foolishness, create a community culture, and feel safe to bring their full selves to the environment.

I believe that the same elements that were vital in that environment can be transferred to learning in a high school classroom. Formulating an identity is an important developmental task for a high school student, and being aware of that as a classroom teacher, I seek to create environments and opportunities where students can do this as they learn.  I felt a little foolish making my demo video and playing “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, but I’ve learned that being playful and foolish myself creates a culture where students also feel safe to do the same.  This lesson will allow students to incorporate their own interests, personalities, and creativity as they playfully work to discover how conductivity works.  The students will inevitably hit roadblocks as they playfully create their videos. But the iterative process of experiencing and observing, reflecting on what they saw, thinking about what it happened and how it could be applied in a new situation, and acting to make those changes will help them learn more deeply than just hearing me explain conductivity.

Conclusion:

The lesson plan I created is solidly supported by both constructivism and experiential learning theory.  Over the past 7 years of teaching, I have learned, through trial-and-error, how to guide students through the constructive process of learning by asking questions rather than telling them answers.  I think my lesson plan could be more specific about the types of questions I would ask as students are working, so that another teacher could also use the lesson plan.

References:

Carter, T.L. (2008). Millennial Expectations and Constructivist Methodologies: Their Corresponding Characteristics and Alignment.  Action in Teacher Education.  Retreived from http://www.tandfonline.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/01626620.2008.10463498.

Culatta, Richard. (2013). Reimagining Learning: Richard Culatta at TEDxBeaconStreet. Retrieved from http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Reimagining-Learning-Richard-Cu.

Derekcx. The Constructivist Classroom. Digital image. College of Education Constructivism. N.p., 23 Aug. 2009. Web. 9 Nov. 2014. https://www.flickr.com/photos/29444537@N00/3892775860/. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 2.0).

GSE843. Steph_Kol_Model. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 12 Sept. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2014. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Steph_Kol_Model.jpg. Public Domain.

Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. A., (2009). Learning to play, playing to learn: A case study of a ludic learning space. Journal of Organizational Change Management.

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