Monday, September 12, 2011

The Wikiseat Project: So You're Going to Build A What in English Class?

by Sean Wheeler
A Wikiseat by Nicolas Weidinger
This past spring I stumbled onto an interesting project designed by Nicolas Weidinger called, Nic explains the project by writing,  "Wikiseat is a three legged stool that is built by hand. Each WikiSeat starts with a Catalyst that acts as a central support structure. The creator of a WikiSeat has the freedom to gather materials and find their own methods for building the seat."

The "Catalyst"

At the time, I was immediately struck by a desire to give it a go.  But I'd never built a chair before, I didn't know how to get a "Catalyst", and I'm terrible with tools.  I felt stuck before I even got out of the gate.  Navigating the project and learning all I would have to learn seemed so daunting.  My seat would probably stink anyway.  After a few weeks of having this gnawing feeling that I really did want to have a try at building a Wikiseat, and falling back on my litany of fears about actually learning how to navigate the project successfully and have it not end in abject failure, I realized that this was exactly like so many of my students feel when working on schoolwork.  It's a case in which the will to learn is there, but it's consumed by an inability to actually dive in for fear of failure or frustration.  I needed to learn how to learn, to navigate, and to talk about the process with someone who might listen and help.  So I decided to order 100 "Catalysts" and make the Wikiseat project the main focus of our first quarter in 10th grade American Literature.

A brief bit of context... I teach in a cohort of students and teachers in a program called LHS 2.0.  The teaching group consists of 9th grade and 10th grade core-subject teachers (Math, Social Studies, Science, Language Arts), an academic coach, and three Special Education teachers.  We use mastery grading, flexible block scheduling, blended online instruction, and problem-based learning as the core foundations of the program.  Each grade level contains a mix of randomly assigned students taken from our regular and special education population and the average class has 25 students.  Each student has been assigned a school-owned netbook.  The 10th grade team often uses a large lecture hall as a classroom, and we frequently hold classes with all 100 students at a time.  We work in two time blocks, each consisting of three 40-minute classes, and students take electives and lunch in the middle of our school day.  Cross-curricular and content area specific units share time throughout the school year.  

The thrust of this unit is towards building a basis in our classroom culture for what it means to learn.  The design process lends itself as an excellent model for real learning, and the Wikiseat project is an ideal way for students to participate in the design process.  Encountering a "Catalyst", be it a few sections of metal at odd angles or a problem that needs solved, is the first step in learning.  The problem compels the learning.  This is contrary to most current teaching practice in that most text-book based classrooms allow what is supposed to be learned to dictate what "problems" students should have to do to acquire the skill.  They've got it backwards.  After encountering a compelling problem (i.e. "I've got this chunk of metal, how am I going to make it into a seat?") designers then begin brainstorming, hypothesizing, modeling, and drafting.  Each of these skills can be found littered throughout our academic content standards, and when students have something to accomplish (like making a chair or writing an essay) I've noticed that these steps don't feel tacked-on or tedious.  The actual composition of a finished product requires a healthy willingness to fail, learn from mistakes, and seek feedback and input from outsiders.  Students, all too often, get mired in frustration and freeze at this stage of the learning process.  Either that or they rush through in a half-hearted effort to get it done and over with.  Design is only realized in use, when it is interacted with by an audience.  The more real the audience is to any designer, the more important that it has an effect on that audience.  This is also true for learning.  My students have shown a tremendous concern for the quality of their work when they have the opportunity to share it in an authentic context beyond our classroom.

The Wikiseat project will be the main focus of my posts for the near future.  I hope that people will follow along, comment, and help me to teach my students something that I really need to learn.

(Next Post --> "'This Is American Literature Class, Isn't It?': Ralph Waldo Emerson's, The American Scholar and the Wikiseat"


  1. Julie Rea:
    Sean--are you familiar with Victor Schreckengost? Here are two links I want you to check out: Video on Victor Schreckengost

    Be sure to read the last paragraph: I know I have heard him tell this story; it’s on video somewhere. Maybe in the video above but not included in those excerpts—how could you leave it out? I don’t understand. . .

    Anyway, I think that Schreckengost's ideas on design and the quote about the chair are two things the students should hear.

  2. Of course. Thanks. I can't wait for our first field trip. Local, a designer, and tactile. Right on.