Tuesday, March 8, 2011

#Edreform The Ultimate Rube Goldberg Machine

One of my favorite YouTube related learning experiences occurred about this time last year. At that time I had just showed my then 4 year old daughter how to navigate YouTube through the related videos posted on the side of the page. We had just bought a couple boxes of dominoes and had been experimenting with setting them up and knocking them down. I thought it would be fun for us to watch some videos of people who had set up thousands of dominoes.

Then, she began clicking away, navigating through video after video of things falling down. Dominoes, cards,


and other amazing videos of motion

until she came across this video by O.K. Go and her eyes grew wide:

Then, after watching the full video in stunned silence she exasperatedly said, "Daddy! I want to do that!"

That sparked a full two months of intense exploration of physics in our household. Every day I would come home from work and would ask my wife, "Where is Christiane?" She would grudgingly reply, "In her lab." You see, a few years ago I was working at a school that had removed all their chalkboards and replaced them with dry erase whiteboards. I took these chalk boards home to serve as walls in our unfinished basement and they have been a fantastic canvas for her exploration of the world. Since our basement is unfinished we let our two girls create whatever kind of mess they want down there and try to keep the space as inviting of projects as possible. This space has transitioned from art studio, to science lab, to a replica of her kindergarten classroom, to a race track over the past year. Over those two months she was into Rube Goldbergs these boards developed into a complex schematic of how different household items from the two boxes of dominoes, to the electric Thomas the Train set, to things hanging from strings, to balls that could roll across the room, to sound activated crawling baby dolls, to water raising in buckets in the sink, to things that floated and were attached to strings that fed through screw eyes placed throughout the house could interact with each other. She had, over those months, developed blueprints for something truly awe inspiring. It would take us all day on the weekend to set up her Rube Goldberg that eventually spanned the entire house by the time she was done.

In the process, she would go back to that video, watch it over and over. Study it, get ideas, try things out, then go back to the video again and again. She took a keen interest in how things moved and while she explored I would often sneak in terms like kinetic and velocity. I could never be quite sure whether she was really grasping the Newtonian concepts or picking up the correct definitions of the terms I would interject until one day in the summer, long past this Rube Goldberg phase she went through, we were at the park. She climbed up to the top of the playset and sitting at the top of the tallest slide poised to make her descent, she said, "Daddy! Look at all my potential energy!"

While we both got some strange looks from other parents at the playground I remember thinking to myself that this is how school should be. She constructed those Rube Goldbergs, she did the heavy mental lifting, she determined what experiments made their way onto the master blueprint on the chalkboard. She did these things because she was in control and because of that the path mattered to her. It was not some programmed curriculum, not some one right way to discover these things, they happened naturally. YouTube was there to serve up a plethora of examples for her to draw from and I was there to help make suggestions but never did I take over and plan an activity. I simply created the conditions for discovery and nurtured the interest for as long as I could.

Instead, what happens in most classrooms, and I have been as guilty of this as any other teacher, is that the teacher is the one who plots the course, who sets up the dominoes and connects the dots. Too often our school curriculum, no matter the subject, is free of student discovery and comprised entirely of experiences crafted and planned by the teacher to meet the teacher's, or worse the state's, learning objectives. "I'd love to let you play with those gears and Tinker Toys kids but it would be more efficient if I just told you what it is you are supposed to learn from them. Here is a worksheet for you to fill out as you follow along so you can remember it for the test." Never mind whether absent spontaneity of discovery what gets told gets learned or not, or what gets learned gets understood.

When we plan our lessons...when we craft our syllabi...when we decide which courses are offered...when we decide who gets to be in this class or that...when we decide to separate children by age...when we construct elaborate systems of sorting kids by grades...when we construct elaborate methods of collecting data...when we take that data and develop complex methods of converting it into methods to determine how we make changes to the original design of our school machine...when we differentiate instruction based on that data for kids...when we take that data and use it to determine how to more efficiently make our machine and trim those things in the machine that may be valuable and beautiful but don't forward the momentum...when we bend and contort and poke and prod we are the ones engaged in constructing a Rube Goldberg. We forget that it should be the student building this machine. And, in our madness we make our students part of the senseless kinetic energy machine. Some fall, some get smashed, some get flung far away, and some just get paint thrown in their faces like the guys from OK Go.

I love Rube Goldbergs. I love watching them fall. Perhaps next time we can help the students decide how to set it back up.

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