Hands-on projects and activities that involve doing or making something are the few educational memories I have from my elementary school days. While my teachers didn’t utilize many projects of this type, occasionally I had to make a diorama or build something to show my learning. Those were my favorite activities. I had to apply my knowledge of a subject to complete the task. I loved it. I found it so much more valuable and meaningful than just listening to a teacher talk, take notes, and complete an exam. The neuroscience of education research being written about in recent years tell us that these kinds of projects are best for engaging students in the content, preparing them for life in a maker-world, and helping them practice their critical thinking and teamwork skills.
Today, during periods three through six, my sixth grade class ventured to one of the Maker Spaces in my school to build pinewood cars. After days of preparation, today was the big dance. They needed to transfer their thinking and idea to a block of wood. They used power tools, encountered problems, solved problems, worked together, asked for help, and had fun constructing their pinewood cars. It was so much fun to observe the boys turning their learning into doing. The application of knowledge was on show in the classroom today. They used their blueprint to guide them in creating their unique pinewood car. While a few of the students ran into problems, they never gave up. Instead, they found new ways to solve their problems. One student cut his block of wood lengthwise right from the start, despite being told that the width between the axle holes needed to remain constant. He didn’t get angry or frustrated, he used his extra wood to glue on extensions to allow the wheels to be wide enough apart so that the car will ride on our test track. A few students struggled to attach their wheels and axles to the block of wood. They either chipped some of the wood or couldn’t get the axles to fit into the groove just so. They didn’t throw their car against the wall in anger. They found glue and fixed the problem. They didn’t need me to solve their problems as they did it all themselves. It was so exciting to watch these empowered learners grow, develop, and solve problems as they DO the learning.
The big question is, would the students better retain the content of friction and aerodynamics if I had just lectured them about the concepts and had them take a test or write a report? The data shows that students who make something unique on their own to show their learning are better able to make strong neurological connections and move that knowledge into their long term memory. Making and doing is what needs to be happening in classrooms around the world. Learning needs to address real-life issues and provide students opportunities to solve problems by making a product or solution. Students who consume education learn to take tests well, but are rarely happy and struggle to solve problems on their own. Consuming quickly makes people apathetic. In order to help our students take care of their educational gardens, they need to be the ones finding the relevant and engaging information that will allow them to solve unique problems through doing or making stuff. The future needs new ideas and problem solvers, not more consumers and test takers.