Review of Invent to Learn – Chapter One Part One

I do not think there is nay thrill that can go through the human hear like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. Such emotions make a forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”
– Nikola Tesla, quoted on p. 11 of Invent to Learn

Martinez and Stager’s first chapter in Invent to Learn is interestingly titled An Insanely Brief and Incomplete History of Making and begins with the above quote from Nikola Tesla. The chapter provides an overview of the historical figures who have played a part in making and tinkering and some of the trends that have been felt through the various ebbs and flows of making over the course of history. There are links made to education, of course, and it is interesting to read some of the historical links between education and making, particularly in the twentieth century with the advent of ‘toys’ like Lincoln Logs and, eventually, Lego.

The first sentence in the chapter is at first glance a bold one; “[m]aking things, and then making those things better is at the core of humanity.” When you stop and take a moment to think about it, it is one of the defining characteristics of our species, is that there has always been an element of curiosity which drives the iterative creative process of inventing and making. It is interesting, I think, that in many stories of other societies, that curiosity-driven innovation and making is one of the characteristics which is consistently absent, though often shown in varying formats. Examples abound of this, including Wizarding society in the Harry Potter saga, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and from a certain perspective, the Elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga.

Retrieved from 3/11/15

Marinez and Stager write that there is a historical acceptance at the core of humanity that direct experience with skills and concepts is where learning occurs at its best, or to phrase it another way, learning by doing is historically accepted as the best way to learn. It is their contention that the maker movement represents “…our best hope for reigniting progressive education” (p.11). The first example that is held up, is someone posited to be the greatest maker in our history, a statement which I would agree with, as I can think of no person more prolific and masterful in such a vast array of disciplines, as Leonardo Da Vinci. The authors moved on from Da Vinci to discuss some of what they termed, the unsung heroes of making.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 publication of Emile, or On Education, is held up  as an early discussion of the natural abilities of the child and the need for free development. There has been substantial criticism levelled against the treatise, however, not having read it, I cannot comment either way. Following on from Rousseau was Johann Pestalozzi, who held to the belief that not only was learning a natural occurrence, but that it was necessary for learning to be balanced between the heart, the head and the hand, best achieved by first-hand experience. Our understanding of Kindergarten, it seems, was developed by Friedrich Froebel, who in turn was influenced by Pestalozzi when he studied under him. Froebel leaned heavily upon learning by doing in his kindergarten design, and these ideas were also taken up by Maria Montessori.

Many of the ideas of some who are held up as giants in educational history, John Dewey, Montessori, Froebel and Pestalozzi were formalised and confirmed by Jean Piaget, who’s publication To Understand is to Invent strongly advocated for learning by doing, a theory of learning which became constructivism. Constructvism holds many strong and clear links to both Froebel and Pestalozzi’s ideas. Piaget took this a step further, and championed the idea of teachers as polymaths, as they would hold the skills and knowledge to enable their students to become polymaths, à la Leonardo Da Vinci, perhaps.

Retrieved from 3/11/15

Piaget believed that abstract or theoretical concepts and ideas, which students often struggled with, were both solved and understood with a different attitude when presented in a concrete situation, related to either a student interest, or another concept with which the student is familiar. Piaget extended this by indicating that instead of introducing a skill or concept with the pre-organised vocabulary needed to understand the learning focus, that instead, teachers should provide a learning environment appropriately grounded in action within which the real action will lead to the need for and easier integration of the specific vocabulary. I can understand Piagets concept here, I believe. Having the need and the context for particularly vocabulary components allows for an immediate integration of those components as there is a frame of reference and need for them to be integrated, rather than them being abstract terms with no meaning.

Martinez and Stager moved on at this point and examined John Dewey’s relationship with education and making. Dewey’s belied was that learning, or the education process, was a lifetime process of growth driven from personal motivation. Dewey strongly advocated for authentic and inter-disciplinary grounded in reality using an iterative design methodology. Dewey held the belief that the standards of adults should be subordinated to the needs of children.

The concept of using careful observation and  and previous experience in learning is not new, and were necessary for early humans in order to hunt, fish, grow crops and build shelters and housing. It is pointed out that things reached a point in the seventeenth century where ‘gentleman amateurs’ were a significant component of the scientific community, and that amateur scientists contributed much to our bank of knowledge over the years through the connection between ideas, people and disciplines. It is this connection which is foundational to today’s maker movement, made simpler than in previous generations through the use of computers and the internet.Martinez and Stager report the words of Norm Stanley at the First Annual Citizen Science Conference in June 2002:

“Science, as we know it today, would not be what it is without the contributions of amateurs. In fact I think it not too brash a statement to assert that basic science and what we know as the scientific method was largely developed by amateurs. From alchemists in search of the Philosophers’ Stone to monks investigating Nature in pea gardens to the gentlemen amateurs of the seventeenth century on, they were developing the experimental/observational/hypothetical approach of modern science. True, with the passage of time the role of the amateur, working independently, has diminished as experimental techniques became highly sophisticated and string and sealing wax no longer sufficed for doing cutting-edge science. Despite vicissitudes, amateur or recreational science remains healthy today, as witness the present gathering.”
-Norm Stanley, p. 15 of Invent to Learn. Full text of speech available here.

Stanley’s full speech talks about way in which it was quite common for children to conduct their own experiments using the then-popular chemistry kits, and Martinez and Stager comment that these home chemistry labs captured the imagination for around two hundred years until “…ninnies suddenly determined that fire, chemistry and fun were just too dangerous for young people” (p.15). From these chemistry labs, it was the introduction of Lincoln Logs, Constructor Kits, Meccano and Lego that allow model-making from users’ imaginations, and that toys of this ilk are now capable of making the real thing, in many cases, as demonstrated in the below video.

It was the self-proclaimed hackers of The Tech Modern Railroad Club (TMRC) in the late 1950s and the essential belief that taking things apart, understanding how they function and then creating new and more interesting things from this knowledge is perhaps the first recognizable maker movement, in the terms of which we would understand it today, and is echoed in the motto of the maker movement; “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it” (p.17).

The maker movement is something that I can see value in, and I certainly agree with the general principle of learning by doing. Implementing this in schools, where teachers, for better or worse, ware required to teach specific content and students are required to sit specific standardised tests, with funding and public perception of the quality of education and teachers riding in large part on those tests, makes it challenging to sell the concept to many school leaders, particularly given the increasing amount of litigation that seems to be occurring. I distinctly remember in Year Six, reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch and us having to design, and create an alternative method of getting lunch to the lighthouse keeper. We were engaged, learning, problem solving, thinking creatively and critically, failing and then analysing why we failed…it was such a rich environment, but I cannot recall the last time I have seen something similar. The safety concerns (litigation fears) make it difficult, but it is a barrier that should be overcome as it has such rich scope for learning.

I thank you for reading through Part One of my Review of the first chapter of Invent to Learn. The next article will be be published next Tuesday, and will begin with Martinez and Stager’s introduction of Seymour Papert.

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