Inspector Gadget, where do I go from here?

Since the Inspector Gadget missions were designed as part of my work in Designing Engaged Learning, my approach was not focused on the traditional framework of the teaching profession in which I operate on a day to day basis.  Inspector Gadget was a project brought into the classroom, but now I would like to bring the classroom into this project.  Unfortunately, Designing Engaged Learning is coming to a close, but the school year for my students and myself continues until the end of June.  Like I said, the goal of this project for me was to join the theories and interactions I learned in class with the approach of teaching in public schools right now.  For me, that means the next logical step is to think about how to use what I learned through this project to provide similar experiences for my students before the school year ends.  How do I create experiences similar to this in other areas of learning?  Because I am a teacher, for me, the next logical step is create a formal lesson plan to help me structure one of these experiences, because these are the structures in which a teacher is expected to work.  

I have crafted a lesson plan with the goal of investigating the ways we can use words and actions to describe the interactions and scientific inquiry that took place in the playground.  Inspired by Sophie's Theater of the Oppressed games to provoke thinking in adosclents about their relationship with the Internet and the games Morgan designed for the workplace, I created a game similar to charades to allow the students to interpret the science observed in the playground.  My hope is that the game will provide the students with the opportunity to play around with language, expression, and interpretation.  I also hope that the game will provide raw material for describing scientific scenarios from the playground in writing.   I want to find more participatory design approaches for students to play around and tinker with words, because they are the tools and materials we use most often, especially in school.  

Reflections on Level 1:  Gathering Intelligence

In class on Thursday, Pauline asked me, “What is it that I want to learn?”  Now that the first phase of this mission that Emilia and I prepared for the students has finished , I have to go back to that question.  Just like anything you plan and prepare carefully for, the actual event differs from your expectation.  No matter how carefully you plan the party, it is always going to be different once the guests arrive.  This is always true in the classroom, so I should not be surprised that the first mission of our Inspector Gadget adventure did not turn out how I hoped.

Level 1 consisted of taking the fourth graders to Discovery Playground located on the Hudson River Greenway to search for and identify examples of simple machines.  The students had a packet of materials to guide them through this adventure.


The packet of materials the students brought to the park.


Let me just focus on my hopes first, so that I can then work out how those hopes were dashed once the students arrived in the playground.  In my head, I saw my students walking through the playground with their partner carefully considering each item before them.  Notebooks and smartphones thoughtfully used to capture what they found.  Student pairs talking to each other as they climbed, pushed, or swung on the playground equipment. Deep scientific discourse emanating from every student as they closely observed how the different materials in the playground worked.  What I wanted to learn from this experience is the ways in which students could use scientific knowledge gathered in the classroom in a different and extremely engaging environment.  My goal was to create an opportunity similar to that described by Petrich, Wilkinson, and Bevan, when they describe the San Francisco Exploratorium Tinkering Studio.  They state, “ Our goal is to design the experience so that learners can find and pursue a purpose, exercise their creativity and imagination, and confront and solve conceptual challenges, within a STEM-rich tinkering context” (54).  

I thought that the materials we designed and the setting we provided for the students set up some of the similar conditions in the Tinkering Studio described by Petrick et al.  For example, I thought the playground provided a space for “engagement” defined as “active participation, which might include silent or still observation and reflection” (53).   The expectations I put on this activity actually clouded my judgement and my motivations because I wanted to learn and see what I desired and in fact, my ego was in the way of the students' intentions and desires.  In fact, the materials and the setting actually brought out different desires and interests in the students.  

What happened instead?  Well, first off I had students open their packet and proclaim they did not understand, because they did not read the instructions.  Many students were confused because I put both the task for the playground and the task for homework in the same envelope.  Then, they had to deal with an agitated teacher telling them to read the instructions!  What did I learn from this?  That my students are not independent when it comes to reading and interpreting instructions, and that as a teacher I should structure tasks so that they may be able to do so -- therefore, do not put two sets of instructions in the same packet (which is something I should have known).

Once the students arrived at the playground, the initial confusion caused by the instructions was then amplified by the setting of the playground itself.  About half of the class just ran to swing set and started swinging.  None of those students were documenting anything, they were just playing on the swings.  Many of them split from their partner and just went off to do what they wanted to do within the playground.  Kids were running around and acting as they normally do within a playground, the scientific inquiry I had hoped to see was nowhere to be found.  Unlike the Tinkering Studio, where  visitors “are invited to slow down, sink in, and spend time working with phenomena and materials to begin to conceive of, design, and make things themselves,” the playground on a warm spring day brought about a frenetic fever in the children (Petrick et al, 51).  There was a lack of silent and still engagement and intentionality as the students ran to try out the different things in the playground.  

Another thing that got in the way was the technology.  Before we even left the classroom, the phones were distracting the students.  One student was playing a game under his desk as I went over the objective for the day (you can’t fool me with tricks like that).  On our walk to the playground the Hudson River was foggy and it was hard to see the George Washington Bridge, so the students wanted to stop and take pictures of the fog, which then turned into just stopping to take pictures of everything.  Once they arrived at the playground, many of those students on the swingset took out their phones to play games while they swung.  After they took pictures and video and completed their assigned task, many kids wanted to sit and play on the phones instead of the playground equipment.  The thoughtful usage of phones to document learning turned into a smartphone free for all, which felt like a shame on such a wonderful spring day.    

Throughout our time on the playground, many of the students were focused on playing, whether it be on the playground equipment, with their phones, or soccer.  Many times I would interrupt the students while they played to ask if they completed their mission.  Sometimes the answer would be, yes, and sometimes no.  Sometimes when the answer was yes, I was still unsatisfied because the answer was, “Yes, I took three pictures, now I’m done.”  Again, the careful, thoughtful inquiry that I had hoped for was not taking place.

So what?

I’m glad Emilia was there because she reminded me that what we saw with the students was actually to be expected.  They were in a beautiful playground on a beautiful day, and they had cellphones in their hands.  My frustration with the results were not necessary, because the students were having a good experience.  Maybe not the experience I wanted them to have, but an experience nonetheless.  In the San Francisco Exploratorium Tinkering Center, “ideas, models, tools, and facilitators in the studio are carefully curated, but there is no set of instructions, and no prescribed endpoint” (Petrick et al, 51).  Perhaps this experience would be better off with a restructuring along similar lines.   But there is another way to go too.  Because even though I feel like the inquiry part of the task, the meaty work I wanted from the students got lost in the environment and materials I provided them, there is still a lot to mine from this experience back in the classroom.  

Looking through the pictures and documentation created by the students I notice different trajectories we can explore based on the “intelligence” they gathered.  Our class now has a collection of pictures of slides, swings, screws, ziplines, along with the goofy faces snapped along the way.  It seems like there are two structures from the playground that caused the most confusion in identifying, the swings and the zipline.  The video footage, pictures, drawings of the swings, and the students’ experiences using them can be the next “carefully curated” material presented to the class.  Many of the students said the swing works the way a pulley does, but this is not accurate.  Before moving into the mission of Level 2, we can explore this topic further together.  Asking the students to explain, using the resources of the classroom, including the pictures and other documentation gathered by the students in the park, books, and any other materials, whether a swing is a pulley or not, will be an interesting place to linger.  In fact, I believe that this will allow for the type of learning described by Petrick et al because in investigating this topic the students “are drawing on their resources; they are taking risks with their ideas; they are operating on the edge of their understanding” (54).  

Picture of swing taken by student in the park.  


The swing is actually not a typical simple machine, so this line of inquiry is not going to resolve in a simple solution.  I know the messiness of this topic could also result in the chaos similar to that of the playground.  Maybe, I will find myself disappointed at the end of this exploration too.  But something tells me that when I get over my initial disappointment of not getting what I wanted, then I can reflect and engage with what was left behind.  Just like visitors to the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, I can find a way to tinker with the artifacts of one learning experience and make some new creation (54).  Maybe that’s where this project will lead me, the ways I can tinker with the classroom experience.  I may not arrive at the place I expected, but there is value in work along the way.      


Field Trip Proposal for School Administrator

Whenever you go on a field trip at my school you need to provide the curricular rationale for that trip.  Here you will see a detailed example of the proposal I am submitting to my principal so that Emilia and I may take my fourth graders on the field trip to Discovery Playground, the setting of Level 1 of our Simple Machines Mission.  The reason it is so detailed is so that other teachers may also use this if they decide to try out this game with their students in the future.  Emilia and I hope to compile all of the resources we create into a multi-media guide for other teachers to use as a reference, including this paper to submit to school administrators to recieve permission for a field trip to Discovery Playground.  

Rationale and Background Information:  The fourth grade students are currently studying simple machines as part of their preparation for the New York State Science Exam.  This area of study is a third grade science standard, that was not covered in depth during this group of student’s third grade curriculum.  The students have engaged in research through literacy instruction, independent reading, as well as science explorations, in order to understand the properties of these types of machines and the ways they function using force, gravity, and friction.  The purpose of this field trip is for the students to locate, observe, and document examples of simple machines within this particular playground.  One of the main goals of this field trip is to provide the students with a hands on experience to apply the concepts they have learned in their research about what simple machines are and how they work.  The reason we are going to the playground is so that they may apply their understanding to a new environment.  The information gathered on this excursion will then be used to develop a deeper understanding of how each simple machine functions under the scientific principles of gravity, force, and friction through subsequent classroom lessons and activities.  

Plan for Learning Activities During the Field Trip -- Level 1:  

  • Before leaving for the field trip, the students will watch a short video that will present them with their challenge/task at the playground.  We are framing this as a detective challenge along the lines of Inspector Gadget or Mission Impossible, because this fits nicely with the way knowledge is constructed, and concepts and ideas become more clearly defined over time.  Additionally, we think this will make it even more engaging for the children.  The video will start as such:  

Welcome scouts, you have been selected to demonstrate your skills so you can win the title of Inspector Gadget in our secret organization. There will be three different levels. The first level will test how well you gather intelligence. The work you do in this level will help you complete the other missions. The documents that will guide you through this level will be handed out to you shortly. Points will be rewarded throughout each mission. The scouts who reach the desired amount of points will win the title of Inspector Gadget and  a position in in our elite organization. Good luck!”

  • After watching the video the students will be given an envelope containing their instructions for the field trip.  Students will get in assigned groups of two. With their teammate, they will identify at least three simple machines and their function at Discovery Playground. They will document their findings using at least two documentation methods: pictures, drawing, filming, writing, recording speech, etc.

Directions for Students:  

  1. With your teammate identify at least 3 different simple machines within the playground.
  2. Document the machine and its function by either drawing, filming, writing, or recording speech.
  3.  Points to be awarded during this session:  3 points for identifying and documenting 3 machines.  
  4. Bonus points will be awarded to additional machines identified.  1 bonus point for each additional machine and documentation.

Materials for Students:  

Each pair of students will receive a ziploc baggie including the following items:

  • Directions and simple machine guide sheet with words and pictures to help students as they identify the machines.  
  • Mini journal for recording drawing and writing.
  • Pencil
  • Smartphone if the student does not already have one.  

Follow up Lessons After the Field Trip:  

  • Level 2 -- Identifying the Forces of Good and Evil

Before beginning their work in the classroom extending the information gathered during the trip to Discovery Playground, the students will be presented with the following video in order to connect this task to the “Intelligence Gathering” conducted in the playground:

“Hello everyone! Great job on level one. Now that you have completed the first mission, we will be moving on to Fighting the Forces of Evil. There are many dangers that we must avert in order to be successful in completing the last mission. So, pay close attention in figuring out how to combat these evil forces. For your last mission, you will be building a simple machine, so bring materials to class for extra bonus points. Good luck!"

In this task the students will use the documentation gathered in the playground in order to identify the forces that go into the function of one of the simple machines they observed.  The students work with their partner from Level 1 and combine with another group in order to make groups of four.  The instructions for this task include:  

 1.Using the documentation from the prior mission, identify the forces that go into the function of one of the                simple machines you observed in the playground.  

2. What “evil” forces can get in the way of your machine functioning properly?

3. What can you do to amplify the function of your simple machine, meaning what can you do to make your machine work better?

4. Use the T-chart to record both the forces of evil and the superpowers of your machine.

5. Present your simple machine of choice to the class through sketch, acting out, or interview & recording a group member.

6. The class will judge the legitimacy of your answers and decide if you have achieved the points for this level of your mission to achieve status of Inspector Gadget.  

7. 2 negatives and 2 positives = 4 points. 1 bonus point for each additional documentation.

The discussion and presentations in this part of the investigation can be used to craft detailed pieces of writing in which the students highlight the positives and negatives of one particular simple machine.

  • Level 3 -- Transmitting the Secret Package

In this lesson, the students will use what they have learned, along with materials they gathered at home and in the classroom to build their own simple machine.  Again, to keep up the sense of training for a secret mission the students will first watch a short video with the following instructions:   

Welcome to your final and most important mission. By now, you will have all of the tools you need to successfully transport the secret package to its final destination. This will be no easy task, but with your skills and knowledge you will get a chance at winning the Inspector Gadget title. We will meet again shortly. Good luck!
The students will use their materials and the knowledge gathered from the previous missions to build one simple machine that can transport a ping pong ball, the “secret passage,” from point A to point B.  The students will work in groups of 2 to build their machine.  They will earn 3 points if their machine works and an additional 3 points if their machine can work with a machine created by a different group.   

Writing From This Experience:  After the students have completed all three levels, they will be awarded the title of Inspector Gadget and a badge to show their accomplishments.  They will then use the experiences from this investigation to craft narrative adventure writing incorporating the scientific facts gathered from their research.  They will write the story of their adventure to become Inspector Gadget using elements of narrative writing to engage their readers and teach them information about simple machines as well.  


A probe approach:  Part two

The cultural probe detailed by Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti contained many different materials, each specifically designed to be attractive, open ended, and thought-provoking (1999).  Each item is designed to “to lead a discussion with the groups toward unexpected ideas” but the final destination is flexible (22).  The variety of items in the probe helps promote this flexibility, because it creates different access points to learning more about the cultural attitudes and beliefs of a particular group of people (23).  Because my area of inquiry is to understand my students’ attitudes and ideas about learning opportunities from materials and their environment, I wanted to include several different elements to my probe.  

One purpose of the probe is to understand the ways in which my students can use materials and their environment so that we may work together to develop a game for users to play, apply knowledge, and learn from.  Therefore, another element to my included working with the materials we use to represent fractions in order to design a task for other students to capture your fraction.  


Students created fraction strips using pre-cut strips of paper.  This was something they already had experience with during math lessons.  

Each fraction strip came with a particular task developed by the student.  Complete the task, and you can capture the fraction.  

I didn’t give any other instructions besides that.  The tasks were completely designed by the students.  Many of the students created fractions, with an accompanying physical task or challenge.  


This one instructs the player to make the designer laugh 3 times.


This fraction requires the player to moonwalk in order to capture it.  There are other dances chosen by other students to include in their task.  

One of the most interesting things to come from this probe was how infrequently the ability to capture the fraction was tied to actually knowing anything about fractions at all.  Most of the students wanted the player to perform a dance or physical feat in order to succeed in this game.  Even though each student made a fraction to capture, the fraction was often detached from the task to be completed.  

A Probe Approach:  Part One

So how does a teacher go about helping to create this type of learning experience in the public school classroom?  Luckily, I have tenure!  But seriously, I decided to start not with a standard I want the students to achieve by the end of the experience, but rather a content area that we will explore, that is a part of the science standards -- Simple Machines.  Before heading into this topic however, I have created a few probes in order to “find out about the unknown” (Hutchinson et al).  

The first thing I did was use pictures of different learning experiences the students have engaged with recently.  This included pictures from our camping trip, or materials we have worked with in the classroom.  


Each picture includes the following questions:  

What is there to learn here?  

How would you go about learning in this space or how would you go about learning from this object?  

This was inspired by the postcards described in Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti’s Cultural Probes.  Like the authors, my interest is to “provoke inspirational responses” from my students.  My intention was to leave the question open-ended enough so that I may gather some information about what students have to say about learning from materials and places.  


I also included pictures of other things we have done in class, such as math projects and pictures from a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History.

I wanted the students to have many different options to choose from, and I asked them to select two to write and think about.


more writing with probes

writing with probes

Next up, looking at what the students wrote.

Some background rationale for my approach...with more to come...

As a public school teacher, the focus of my profession is on instructing students on content and development of skills.  As a New York City public school teacher, this means adherence to grade level standards as set out by the Common Core.  Teachers are expected to get their students to specific benchmarks set out by the standards, and our practice is evaluated on how well we are able to teach those standards as well as through measurement of student learning in meeting those standards.  One of the key terms that is tossed around in education these days is “understanding by design” or “backward planning” which means starting with a standard you want your students to achieve and then plotting the course that will get the students to the end goal of reaching this standard.  Regardless of my own personal feelings on standards and benchmarks for students to meet (by the way I am against them), this “backward planning” is a useful framework for thinking about how to design a learning context I want to explore in the classroom -- with a few tweaks based on my current coursework and the readings from this particular class.  

In Technology Probes: Inspiring Design for and With Families, Hutchinson et al detail a participatory design approach of engaging users before developing an end goal.  The authors state their approach differs because in other approaches, “the design concept is already well established by the time the users see it. Their suggestions are likely to relate to details about the user interface and will not be fundamental contributions to the technological design.”  However, through a technology probe approach, the users are more like co-creators and the purpose of the probe is to be “an instrument that is deployed to find out about the unknown - to hopefully return with useful or interesting data.”  This data can then be used to think about possible design projects for the future.  The point being, that although the trend in education is to design lessons for the students with an end goal determined by the external Common Core curriculum, a participatory design approach gives equal importance to the students’ active participation in the design of new learning (Hutchinson et al, 2003).  

With this in mind, I believe it is important for a teacher to have a more flexible approach when designing learning experiences for his/her students.  Like Hutchinson et al, I feel it is important to “provoke” the learner into thinking about things in a different way, along with giving the learner the ability to shape the trajectory of their experience.  This also connects to much of what Paulo Freire explains in Pedagogy of the Oppressed about the importance of “problem posing education” and “the solution of the teacher student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (34, 29) (more on this later).