Saturday, 7 November 2015

ECOO15 1: Making Frustrations

Back from ECOO15 and, as usually, my head is full.  After a rough year of politics around Ontario Education it's nice to attend a conference made by teachers for teachers about... teaching!  Not a politician in sight, though attendance was wounded at this volunteer run conference by them.

ECOO may have been the site
of the first ever 3d photobomb!
I spent Wednesday with my robotics teacher showing people how to make 3d models using a Structure Sensor - a 3d laser scanner that is cheaper than the ipad it connects to.  It's one of those game changing bits of engineering that suddenly opens up the complex world of 3d modelling to pretty much anyone.

We put the scanner into hundreds of hands and Katy was on there to show them how our 3d printers took those models and made them tangible.  For many who have heard of the maker movement, 3d modelling and printing but had never seen it in action, it was a seminal moment.  I'm hoping it also means people start considering how we can move toward a maker mentality, because it's about as far removed from what we do in formal education as you can get.

Buddha Tim by tking on Sketchfab - @banana29's first 3d model, nicely done!

The next day, the opening keynote by Silvia Martinez was an overview of makerspaces and how they create a genuine learning environment.  Unfortunately, and like so many other educational books capitalizing on a trend, the keynote sold the concept of Making based on the fantastic contraptions shown at world class Maker Faires.  This is akin to saying everyone should play soccer like this, and then showing them the World Cup.

Education teaches students to expect success if they do what
they're told.  Engineering demands mastery, creativity and
resilience; reality is a demanding teacher.
As I said in the conference, making involves frustration and failure.  More often than not it results in a prototype that doesn't work.  I find that the grade nine students I am introducing this process to are greatly aggravated by the inflexible demands of reality.  They are quick to blame and even quicker to give up.  The most common comment is, "just tell me how to do it."  The sub-text is, 'I've learned to do what I'm told in order to show I'm learning.  Why aren't you doing that?'

Students are used to the education system jigging things to ensure success.  The process of invention doesn't do this and reality has no interest in modifying how it works so that students can feel good about their effort.  I don't teach 'I tried real hard' or 'guaranteed success'.  What I do teach is how computers and electronics work, and I expect students to develop skills sufficient to be able to work this these inflexible devices.  Once the mastery is managed, play can begin.  Shakespeare wasn't writing plays while he was still learning to write.

This was posted by Bre Pettis way back in 2009.
This kind of radical engagement isn't the managed

and directed engagement teachers are looking for.

If you want to build with electronics and digital technology (which are what are empowering much of the maker movement), you need to have something more than boundless enthusiasm.  Using digital technology isn't effortless despite the marketing.  There is mastery learning required before you are cranking out 3d prints of gears and building your own robot out of garbage.  Many of the people creating the things you see at a maker faire are trained engineers.  I'll bet that the kids shown at these Maker Faires are relying on some engineering expertise at home as well.  It's nice to see their creativity, but it isn't the only thing, or even the main thing, that is enabling these builds.  It's like watching the child of a scientist presenting a surprisingly fantastic science fair project.

My concern is that Ontario Education will rush into this exciting and trendy fad, buying stacks of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and 3d printers which will then gather dust when teachers realize that this equipment isn't Lego, it doesn't build itself with enthusiasm.  Your code has to be flawless and your wiring exact for even basic things to happen, and even when you've done everything right it might not work anyway because the LED you used happens to be defective.  You can't simply lower expectations and then see results.  These are complex systems being created.

I struggle each year to get high school students to develop resiliency and master skills in electronics and digital technology so I would ABSOLUTELY LOVE to see the maker movement and its attendant philosophies infect Ontario's classrooms.  The kids are more than capable of developing this resiliency and expertise, but I suspect that the vast majority of educators (many of which I help to plug in their desktops each day) aren't.

The maker movement pushes back against vapid consumerism.  I'm a big fan of intimately knowing the machines I use.  The motorcycle I ride I restored after finding it in a field, the computers I use I build from scratch, but it took me years to build my mechanical and digital skills to this level.  Most people aren't that patient, or curious.  Most people want immediate satisfaction, which is why they drive their cookie cutter SUVs to shopping malls.

Most teachers are no different.  If it isn't their curriculum, it's of no interest. Trying to push maker tools into that kind of classroom is a disaster waiting to happen.  If you've never used Linux, let alone installed an OS onto an SD card, what makes you think you will make magical use of Raspberry Pis?