There is a well-known proverb that runs: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. This saying, in a variety of forms, has been attributed to many authors over the years, but is often quoted by teachers who realize that the most meaningful learning involves “doing” as the means by which lasting lessons are taught. For those of us working with elementary children, the truth of these words is undeniable. Students in their formative years must get their hands “on the learning” along with their minds “on the thinking”.
This does not mean that there is no place for rote learning, memory work, or traditional methods of imparting important content. After all, there is no replacement for good old-fashioned mastery and memorization for many of the key tools necessary to make sense of such hands-on work. Like most things in life, a balanced approach serves students the best and helps them internalize and make “true possessions” of their learning.
How do the most effective and creative teachers achieve this? By tapping into creativity, application, and “doing”. This is not new. For generations, master teachers have understood that skills and knowledge are best retained through practice, application, trial and error, and innovation. Today, an increasing number of schools across North America is getting back in touch with something that history’s best teachers have always known – when children make and tinker, it is a very effective means of achieving real learning.
Maker Spaces, Tinkering Labs, Design Time, and Genius Hour are just a few ways by which schools are heading “back to the future” as more and more educators re-discover the benefits of brainstorming, designing, collaborating and experimenting with real materials and real challenges in spaces designated and equipped to support such learning.
Take, for example, a room in which students scurry to gather materials to design prototypes of swimming pools, with rotating floor tiles and a glass roof! Projects and challenges like these promote both a design-thinking culture and an innovation mindset. When students have meaningful, well-planned opportunities to design and build (i.e., tinker and make), the results can be impressive and lead to fabulous demonstrations of learning.
Once students are trained in the arts of interdisciplinary thinking and hands-on learning, they develop skills in collaborating, communicating and “failing fast”. An important goal of this philosophy is to cut losses when testing and experimentation reveal something isn’t working and quickly try something else (a concept also known as pivoting). Sound familiar? It’s all the rage at Pixar, Apple and Google – and any place else where learning really happens!
Let’s face it. When you are working to solve a problem that excites you, you are infinitely more engaged. By enriching traditional learning with opportunities to make and create, the aim is not only a deepening of students’ understanding of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), but also an improvement on their soft skills, such as their social interaction, confidence and their level of enjoyment of school.
Our children and students will need all these complementary skills, if we are serious about preparing them for a successful future!