Learning through making

Learning through making. It’s part of the fundamental philosophy of ‘Constructionism’ behind Papert’s ideas, and key to a practical subject like Computing. On the surface it seems very simply, in a subject based on making things, students learn by doing just that. Yet dig deeper and the idea of learning through making has some much deeper implications to explore.

Making learning fun

It’s pretty clear if you know young people that making is something that is going to engage them. Active lessons always get the popular vote from classes, especially if they let students make choices about what they work on. The sense of achievement you get from making something and sharing it with others or taking it home is pretty motivating too. There’s always a few who would rather a ‘theory lesson’, but the engagement you get from making is usually a powerful motivator. It’s hugely important to get people engaged with learning for it to be successful, but learning is more complicated than simply paying attention to something. Seeing learning through making as only a way to engage people would be missing something much deeper that. For proponents of Constructionism it’s also about how making interacts with the way we develop understanding.

From concrete to abstract

Our culture of education in the west can often be very focused on the cognitive- the abstract thinking that can be clearly defined in learning objectives, exams and books. We can tend to think of formal education as the process of coming to understand abstract ideas, with abstract ideas being the most important level of understanding that can then be applied to our everyday lives. Young children usually start learning about numbers through physically playing with concrete objects such as blocks, counters and toys, but the aim is for them to move on to being able to discuss and manipulate numbers as abstract ideas. Dealing with concepts totally on an abstract level is hard, and often children have to return to these concrete methods to support their understanding. It takes time before children can add and subtract without the convenient aid of fingers to count on, and even when this is mastered they often return to counters when learning about the more complex concept of division. This trajectory from understanding concepts in concrete, real life terms towards being able to explore them in the abstract is well explored in the work of Jean Piaget, almost universally taught in teacher education courses across the western world.

Affective learning

Whilst we see the cognitive side of learning as key to understanding, we tend to see the affective, or experiential and feelings based, as something useful for making learning engaging and memorable, but not a fundamental part of it. Papert saw this differently. In ‘Mindstorms’ he vividly relates the affective experience of playing with cogs and gears as a child, and how he came to an understanding that machines could be both very structured but also creative ways of interacting with the world.

I remember quite vividly my excitement at discovering that a system could be lawful and completely comprehensible without being rigidly deterministic.

  • Seymour Papert (Mindstorms)

Papert writes about changing his worldview, not only in terms of gaining knowledge, but in gaining a new relationship with knowledge. Manipulating and exploring the concrete objects of gears allowed him to develop an affective understanding of how machines work, and that these complex constructions are knowable and understandable. Mark Surman, CEO of Mozilla describes this memorably as seeing the ‘lego lines’ in the world; the visible joins that help you understand that something was made by a person, and that with the right learning that person could be you.

Learning as becoming

Such a change in understanding is a bit of a shift from the way educators are often encouraged to see learning. It’s a difference metaphor for what learning is. Much of the time our language about learning is based in what Prof. Anna Sfard calls the ‘learning as acquisition’ metaphor, where learning is seen as discrete blocks of content that can be gradually acquired. Paulo Friere pejoratively called this the ‘banking model’ of education. There are other metaphors for learning though, and when exploring the potential of learning through making it can help to think about the ‘learning as becoming’ metaphor, the idea that we learn in order to explore and develop who we are as a person, and the way we see our identity fitting in to the world.

New tools for learning

Much of this could be an argument for learning through experience, but for Papert it was using computers that he described as being incredibly powerful. Why? Computers allow us to manipulate abstract concepts in a way it simply isn’t possible to do in the physical world. Logo may seem like primitive software to us in 2016, but Papert saw its potential to allow children to actively manipulate concepts such as angles and geometry. This made abstract concepts accessible to children to manipulate and understand by feel, much as a sand and water tray in the early years allows children to explore their understanding of basic physics. We expect children to move on from this playful, exploratory approach to learning as they get older, but perhaps this is only because we lack the tools to make more sophisticated concepts concrete and accessible to them to manipulate. The power of computers for learning is described in Papert’s writing not as being a way to deliver content to children, but as a tool they can use to explore and manipulate previously abstract concepts in a concrete way.

Harnessing the tools

Making is often a fun and engaging way to learn. Yet it’s power can go beyond engagement and towards a very different way of learning and understanding the world. It takes a shift in how we think about learning and in the way we encourage young people to use computers to understand the world. These days we certainly have more powerful and sophisticated tools accessible to young learners, perhaps the biggest challenge is understanding how they can be used not only to engage, but to learn in new ways that are both effective and affective.

Originally published in issue 1 of Hello World — The computing and digital making magazine for educations. helloworld.cc

Photo Credit: WDAsso Flickr via Compfight cc

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