The Eighth Grader and the Chop Saw: A Field Guide to Teaching in the Idea Lab
This is a different kind of teaching—everyone gets an A! When I teach a concept, like a new verb tense, different students grasp it at different speeds and with different proficiencies. After a little while, I assess the students’ knowledge of the topic. I try hard to design a good assessment, but it’s unlikely that I truly gauge the exact degree to which every student understands the concept. And then I move on. If my class is well-designed, then I circle back and revisit important concepts again and again, but I never really have an exact sense of the accuracy of my students’ understanding.
Teaching to a physical end product, like a constructed aqueduct, completely changes how students absorb and how I measure progress with the goals of a lesson. I can’t just write new material on the board, make students copy it down, lead them through practice activities and then give an assessment. If students don’t succeed in putting together the aqueduct, then we can’t move on. I have to work with every student until they succeed in doing part of the project. If an A means that a student completely fulfilled the goals of the lesson, then every student got one. Every student in my class took part in the building and worked on a team to the best of their developmental and personal abilities. In fact, I chose not to grade this project. When I told my students this, one of them raised his hand and asked, “So I could have done a really bad job and not have it hurt my grade?” Before I could answer, his classmate turned to him and said, “But you didn’t. You worked hard on it because it was fun, and Fio didn’t need to give us a grade to make us care.”
Building on the clock is unnatural—IdeaLab projects need a different schedule. Have you ever gotten lost in a home improvement project, or a puzzle, or in assembling a piece of furniture? You probably spent longer than 40 minutes on it. Day after day during this project, I found myself saying weird things like, “Ok, I know that some groups are stuck on the problem of how to stabilize their arches, but remember that we only have 15 minutes left in the period to figure it out.” This goes against the concept of flow—in which one enjoys things so much that one loses track of time (like we all do when doing the things that we love best.) In his seminal work, :Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that “people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
Just when my students were absorbed in their building, I had to continually stop them so we could clean up and get to our next class on time. If we are going to do projects like this in a way that most encourages students to love them, then we need to find a way to build longer chunks of time into the schedule. Perhaps we should be thinking of this as we decide what exactly Time looks like as part of our Strategic Vision.
Let It Be Messy—the group dynamic is as important as the project itself. My students required very little classroom management during this project. They stayed on task longer and with less prompting than they do during more traditional school-type activities. I structured the work sessions so that students were in several different group settings, but so they always had to work through the challenges of the interpersonal dynamic. Both of my seventh grade sections did the project, and different and equally fascinating dynamics emerged within each group. In one class, students did a great job of working productively in small groups, even though they had to negotiate and share tools with other groups. After a few days of small group work, this class spent a period working as a large group, and things didn’t go smoothly. With 15 minutes left in the period, the female students had been forced to the fringes, and the males weren’t helping them have a role or paying any attention to them. I stopped early that day and asked everyone to return to the classroom for a discussion, during which the girls shared how today’s session felt for them. A powerful moment followed in which they spoke from the heart about how, if the roles were reversed, they would have gone out of their way to make sure the boys were involved.
The other class struggled to see the project as a class-wide team effort and not as a competition between small groups. When I divided up the pieces of the aqueduct, I didn’t give an equal distribution of pieces to each group because I wanted the groups to have to discover a problem and strategize about how to solve it. A debate emerged among the students about how best to proceed: should the groups trade pieces, steal from each other, or should the entire class meet and equally redistribute pieces? We put the desks in the classroom in a circle, and the students debated among themselves until they reached a sense of the meeting about distributing the pieces equally. Perhaps the greatest moment of the entire project came when the students who didn’t like the group’s decision didn’t stand in the way, even though it was not how they would have chosen to proceed.
Reflect, Reflect, Reflect. We stopped five or 10 minutes before the end of every period and either filled out a reflection document individually, or had a discussion about interesting trends that emerged in the group dynamic. The reflections, shown below, indicate that students were spending as much time learning how to communicate and work with each other as they were thinking about the actual building.
“We spent the first part of class talking about what to do and how to do it. We came to a consensus that we needed to do something about our disagreements and found a good strategy. We also needed help from a better builder so we went and got one from another group.”
“The strategies that were going well were that most groups were working together and not trading but giving away pieces that we didn’t need.”
“Using the ‘Supermarket Method’ (worked really well) where we sort the pieces and put them in different spots where each group could get the pieces they needed.”
(My role in the group was that) “I was the diplomat and ‘talking guy’ who got other people from other groups to help and furthered my group’s agenda.”