Making and Design and Writing in School

In “Perspective-Taking and Object Construction:  Two Keys to Learning,” Edith Ackermann explains that according to Piaget, intelligence is a result of assimilation and accommodation.  What Ackermann herself says is, “this alternation between assimilation and accommodation punctuate individuals' interactions with the world” (1).  We are at times assimilating, taking in and “imposing” our own order on what we experience.  Other times, we are accommodating, getting in lost in the moment (1).  If this is how intelligence works, then making and design fit perfectly with knowledge construction.  Making and design allow the learner to both impose their own order and get lost in the object.  Additionally, they allow for what Ackerman “a god’s eyes view” or “the ability to move away from one's own standpoint, and to take on another person's view” (1).  By using making and design as an integral part of the classroom, the students will have the opportunity to do all of these things.  

So what would this look like in my classroom?  Currently, my students are writing your standard five paragraph essay.  What are the ways in which a teacher could link real construction to paragraph construction in an authentic way?  Not every skill is going to lend itself to creating a rich opportunity for assimilation, accommodation, and “a god’s eyes viewpoint,” or is it?  This essay I’m referring to is a scenario I gave my students based on research we have done in class on both the structures of the United States Government, the way of life of some of the Native Peoples of New York State, and a study of how ecosystems work.  After reading, discussion, field trips, and other projects, I asked my students to write an essay based on an idea inspired by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  The students are stranded on “No Adult Island.”  They are to imagine that they are one of 50 children on temperate forest island, and they need to make a plan for survival, using what they learned about how ecosystems and governments work.  The goal is that they would build their plan, through constructing each part of the essay, the introduction, two supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.  Does this allow for the “perspective taking and object construction” that Ackerman details as essential to knowledge construction?  Where does learning the structure of essay writing lend itself to making and design?

One thing I tell my fourth graders is that when you create a piece of writing, you literally make something out of nothing.  What was once a blank sheet of paper, now it has your words.  But that’s also very hard for some kids -- to have a blank paper and have to write your own words about something; it’s hard for some adults too!  When a child has to construct a piece of writing they are being asked to both assimilate and accommodate -- they both impose their own order on this “tool” we call writing.  I think one example of assimilation that can be seen in a child’s piece of writing is looking at how they try to spell new words, because they are imposing their own understanding of how sounds and letters work to write words with their own invented spelling.  Accommodation happens when a writer gets lost in their writing (alas, this doesn’t happen for many kids that often).  But accommodation might also be when a student gives control over to a particular method of doing something, giving yourself over to the ways in which you master a craft and make it yours.  I think it might be useful to look at the construction of writing skills alongside the "diving in" and "stepping out" Ackermann explains as being essential to reaching a deeper level of understanding.  


Making and Play

I enjoyed beginning the readings with a reminder that teachers from the 16th century could probably enter and school and teach a class with ease. I think this cuts to a core conflict in education around whether you aim to produce “economically and socially constructive members of society” or dissenting, critical, and non-conforming thinkers. Certainly part of the reason why educational instruction hasn’t transformed is because education still acts in the service of the economy and society. This reminded me of Paul Willis’s landmark book, “learning to labour: how working class kids get working class jobs”. This further related to the Key-Chain Syndrome: Despite having the opportunity to make anything, students ended up creating a low-skill, high-output, cheap mass-production of key-rings. Whilst I see the potential for a focus on making to stand in opposition to normal teaching practices, there is a danger that it avoids the wider discussion of what type of humans we want our education system to produce. Moreover, I can imagine that within the maker-space there must be careful attention to social-mixing and mixed-ability grouping, so that you don't simple re-create existing inequalities witin the making environment. For example, in one of the readings, a public school in Queens was paired with an exclusive private school in the UWS that had its own 3D printer and making center.

Reading about the tinkering studio led me to think more deeply about the role of facilitator versus teacher. In mainstream education there is total and constant scrutiny of the teacher - by society, parents, other teachers, government, etc. Yet in all these texts about Making and Play, the role of the facilitator doesn’t seem to be closely interrogated in the same way.