Want Learning to Stick? Make it Real

Introducing the Follow / Tinker / Make / Share Framework for learning-by-making

William Rankin
Nov 12, 2020 · 9 min read
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Image adapted from a photo by the Smithsonian Institution

You’re a teacher. Or a parent. Or a school leader. Or just a person. Given the perilous state of the world, currently hosting a global pandemic as a warm-up act for … well, a catastrophic global warm-up, you’ve perhaps begun to recognize the burdens this next generation will have to carry. They won’t be able to let anything slide. The challenges they’ll have to solve are arguably more complicated than any in human history, and the choices they make will largely determine whether or not humanity survives. Plus, to put a cherry on top, despite the best efforts and labor of many teachers, most of this generation have a Covid-shaped hole right in the middle of their education.

However, they don’t really need what many educators are prepared to offer. They certainly don’t need fill-in-the blank worksheets, fill-in-the-bubble standardized exams, or fill-in-the-seat lectures. Far too many folks love to trot out the dubious old saw about “jobs that don’t exist yet,” but regardless of whether that’s true, it should be obvious that this generation won’t be prepared for any of what’s coming by marching through a bunch of lock-step, ‘school-that-exists-now’ exercises. There’s simply no way that regurgitating those pre-digested facts or replicating those canned-formula procedures is going to prepare them even for today’s challenges — let alone tomorrow’s.

As lots of us have been saying, we’ve got to build something better.

However, reimagining learning can be daunting. Most educators haven’t had the preparation or experience to design new kinds of learning experiences. Most of us who trained as teachers were schooled to adopt (or when absolutely necessary, to adapt) learning experiences designed by others — professionals. What expertise do we have to offer? We do school as school was done to us because that’s what school prepared us to do — a closed loop. It’s second nature for us. Reimagining learning? Many of us can’t even imagine where to begin, let alone what we might design or build. It seems like chaos.

But take a step back and start thinking outside of school and it gets a little easier. Start by considering a hobby or pastime you’ve picked up (one that you still enjoy and participate in). If you think back to the very beginning, you probably followed some initial information about your hobby with a project — that hobby didn’t stay informational or intellectual for long (even if it was about information, like sports stats or stamp collecting). You got busy doing something — making, trying, training, collecting, practicing. And when you did, you probably started by following some pretty direct instructions. Instructions really help when you’re starting out. If they’re rigid and prevent growth — becoming an end rather than a beginning or a means — they’re not so good. But most aren’t. Initially, they’re a big help.

When you first started, somebody gave you a ‘formula’ or a ‘recipe’ so you could get your feet wet — maybe someone you only ever ‘met’ on a screen or a page. Those instructions gave you a ‘platform’ — a structure that provided experience and confidence. You could follow the recipe to end up with a result you wanted — at least eventually. But the key is that you didn’t stop there. You pushed forward and began to move beyond that formula. After a while, as you got more comfortable, you started to explore the ‘platform’ in new ways. Assured by the safety and consistency it offered, you might have started by making small changes and trying tiny experiments — just to see what would happen. “What if I added three eggs instead of two?” “What if I used thicker yarn, or smaller gauge needles?” “What if I kicked off from my left foot instead of my right?” You began to adapt the recipe to incorporate changes you wanted — to make it more your own. Then maybe you started to try more ambitious projects and experiments. As you did, you gained confidence to try even more, and you likely began sharing the results of your efforts with others — maybe those involved in that activity, maybe friends or family, and likely both. It became important to share your developing abilities with other people — not only those who shared your passion, but also outsiders … maybe folks you could bring into the fold. Perhaps you even became a guide yourself, helping new practitioners start down the same path you once took… (you can find more about this entire process here).

Comparing yourself then to yourself now, you’ll probably recognize three important changes:

  1. your knowledge and ‘instincts’ have grown — you have a sense about how new little experiments might turn out or what’s more likely to work or be successful;

In other words, what started with recipes and your dependence on someone else has developed into organic, personalized creativity and communal interdependence. Whether you’re a knitter, a stained-glass maker, a baker, or a dirt-biker, you’ve probably followed this path. And if this is the path you’ve followed to learn outside of school, does it make sense to follow a similar path inside of school to create a new generation of scientists, mathematicians, writers, musicians, historians, artists, and business people?

Absolutely.

Constructionist Learning

Of course, none of this should be news. We’ve known about these sorts of learning strategies for ages. At the turn of the 20th Century, Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey were all telling us about the educational value of projects and were working to popularize this approach. These early constructionists knew teachers should pose challenges that generated student-led learning rather than emphasizing lectures or standardized tests. They knew that discovery is far more energizing and engaging than informational consumption. As constructionist guru Seymour Papert wrote in his 1996 The Connected Family, “The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery” (67).

As with hobbies, when we set learners on a project or a challenge instead of on memorizing abstract information, we support a richer context for their discovery — a meaningful reason to master skills and tools. It’s clearly nonsensical to teach a tool, concept, or skill ex nihilo and then provide learners with a project; starting with a project that organically introduces the tools, concepts, and skills is far more likely to be successful. For example, Papert did not want children to learn computers; he wanted them to use computers to learn. For him, computers were simply an ‘object-to-think-with,’ and he believed that teaching computers as a subject would rob them of their relevance and utility. A million primary- and secondary-school computing courses and a host of ill-conceived state standards have proven him right. According to Papert, one should no more teach computers than one should teach a course on hammers or whisks — or any other tool. Instead, when learners use tools to construct something they want to make — a house, a soufflé, a complex geometric pattern — they start down a path that sees projects as a beginning, not an end — a reason for exploration, application, and growth.

On the other hand, when we focus on the tool, concept, or skill first, it’s easy to lose track of larger learning goals — or even to design a learning experience that lacks any goal other than introduction. Starting with ‘drills and skills’ rarely puts learners on a path to meaningful making. Indeed, it’s often the fastest way to make whatever we’re teaching disconnected from learners’ everyday lives and irrelevant to their future practice. Strange, then, that it’s also the way so many of us teach….

Humans have basic needs: we need to solve problems and create. We need to connect with others and collaborate productively. We need to explore and comprehend the world around us. We need to exercise our human capabilities. We design tools to help us accomplish all of these. If we keep these larger needs in mind, any act of construction — baking a cake or building a robot — can be a vehicle for responding to and developing them. On the other hand, if the only goal — and only test — is for everyone to bake the same cake or build the same robot, the “pleasure and benefit of discovery” are lost. Learners won’t develop the critical skills or experience necessary to use what they’ve learned to solve problems that are meaningful to them. The cake and the robot will be decontextualized knowledge, disconnected from anything but some random assignment. This is not what I mean when I talk about constructionism.

Conversely, when learners start with a ‘platform’ and are encouraged to adapt it for their own contexts and goals, the project becomes a means of empowerment, learning, and agency. Designed well, learning challenges can mean so much more than another kind of assignment. They can invite us to a domain of knowledge — like biomechanics, ethics, or algorithmic thinking. They can give us transferrable experiences — structuring a compelling argument, understanding how to build a flexible structure, or mastering color and design. They can equip us with powerful fusion skills — deconstructing a problem and thinking critically about how to solve it; developing, testing, and troubleshooting possible solutions; working productively with a team. Such projects go beyond other kinds of assignments because they set us on a path toward something. When I talk about constructionism, this is what I mean.

The FTMS Constructionist Learning Framework

This is the fifth in a series of articles. It provides the answer to a set of challenges and observations that began with “Education is over,” a review of how the pandemic stripped the veneer from a failing educational system. In “RE: Designing learning” I described a conceptual learning design that engages three ‘cubic’ dimensions — content, community, and context — to create a richer learning environment that better prepares learners for real-world challenges. In “Learning supremacy,” I critiqued the way standardized learning perpetuates social, cultural, and economic inequality. And in “Making learning,” I outlined a rationale for creating the ‘platform’ projects that are essential for learning, as I discuss in more detail below. All of these articles have been building toward this: a 4-phase framework designed to guide learners toward increasing levels of proficiency, adaptability, fusion skills, and agency. The four phases — Follow, Tinker, Make, Share (FTMS) — mirror the natural structures we experience in learning outside of school. They move from direct instruction through guided practice to independent practice while providing ongoing opportunities for reflection, evaluation, and collaboration along the way.

And they work for both ‘remote’ and ‘in-person’ learning.

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The FTMS Framework makes learning-by-making easier and more productive

In brief, the structure looks like this: follow (direct instruction) builds the platform for tinker (modification and iteration), which develops the skills and knowledge necessary for make (creative application and challenge-based differentiation), which sets the stage for share (critical engagement, collaboration, analysis, and performance-based assessment). The phases are designed to work cooperatively, moving learners along a pathway of increasing cognitive and skills development, differentiation, literacy, and agency. As such, they offer learners an increasingly robust engagement with a knowledge domain and its corresponding experiences and skills. More importantly, they offer a possibility for more diverse and personalized exploration that increases geometrically as learners encounter and engage with related projects and other learners working to solve similar challenges. This certainly isn’t standardized learning, but it isn’t chaos either. And it’s the best strategy I’ve seen to make learning stick.

Want a more detailed look? Click here for a full discussion….

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William Rankin

Written by

Former university professor; learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency, replacing the Taylorite education factory… www.unfoldlearning.net

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

William Rankin

Written by

Former university professor; learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency, replacing the Taylorite education factory… www.unfoldlearning.net

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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