Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Teaching Design: What Makes a Cup a Cup?

"What makes a cup a cup?
For your answer, please take some time to carefully consider the question and to compose a thoughtful response.  Each response will also need to include a legal picture of a cup (If you don't know what I mean by a "legal" picture, please see me.  You can also look up Creative Commons licensing.)
Your answer will need to be spelled correctly and it needs to be an example of your very best writing." 
First online forum assignment of the Wikiseat project.  August, 2011.

In thinking about how to approach the Wikiseat project with a networked group of over 4000 students, I think it might be useful for me to go into greater detail about exactly what this whole thing looked like in my 10 grade US Literature class last year.  This way, as we begin to develop a network of teachers thinking about how to tailor the Wikiseat project for the learning needs of their students, we can discuss how to adapt, modify, and supplement what was done last year.

The "What Makes a Cup a Cup?" assignment was developed to get students thinking deeply about the notion that design solves problems, as well as introduce them to concepts of form and function.  On the day before we start this lesson, I ask students to bring a cup to our next class so that they'll have it in front of them as the lesson begins.  "What makes a cup a cup?" is actually a very difficult question to answer.  As you can see from the exchange below, students not only posted responses, but also engaged in a bit of argument, which, as a Language Arts teacher, allowed me to begin working on our evidence and support standards:

(And I guess I should start looking into this "onternet."  Oops.)

But eventually, students came to give responses like this:

After we began to classify aspects of student responses into descriptions of either form and function, students began to come to an understanding of how form and function work in other objects.  We looked at shoes, thermostats, audio speakers, and students desks, among other things, and students were quick to display a pretty firm understanding of the basic principles of design.  However, I was pushing for them to learn something more.

The follow up question in class for the day after the students posted their "What Makes a Cup a Cup? responses aimed to have the students begin thinking about what problem a cup actually solves.  Sure it has a form and a function, but why would anyone make it in the first place?  We had a bit of fun in class thinking about the person who invented the first cup.  I asked students to think about how that person must have felt about having to walk to a river, stream, or lake everyday to drink.  The students easily understood that the cup was invented out of frustration.  And then they came to understand that this frustration led that first cup inventor to find a solution to the problem.  I asked students to consider the ways in which the form and function of a cup serve as a clearly tangible solution to the "I-don't-want-to-have-to-walk-to-the-water-source-to-drink" problem.  Towards the end of class, we played a game in which I pointed to any man-made object in the classroom and they shouted out what problem the object solved.

I think a discussion about form and function as related to problem-solving is applicable in a wide-variety of learning situations.  A biology teacher could discuss the ways in which evolutionary traits are responses to environmental problems.  Maybe a history teacher could discuss how government systems are formed and function to solve issues of a civic nature.  I look forward to how the growing network of teachers working on the Wikiseat project will adapt, modify, and add to what was an exciting first step in what my students accomplished last year.  I'd appreciate any comments or questions that help us to think about how this would look in classrooms around the world.

Next Post:  So what problem will your Wikiseat solve?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Catalysts for a Change.

by Sean Wheeler

"Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.  Hence, Instead of Man Thinking, we have the book-worm." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

In perhaps the most provocative line in his "American Scholar" speech, given in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a distinction between two conceptions of education.  On one side, that of the "book-worm", students are to go about the work of studying greatness.  ON the other side, and the one engaged by the WikiSeat project, is a conception of education that promotes thinking and the actual potential for greatness of the students.

The Wikiseat project begins with what Nic Weidinger has called a Catalyst.  A Catalyst is a welded support structure that forms the beginning of what will eventually be made into a functional Wikiseat.  It's been one year since I first placed a set of Catalysts in front of the eighty-five students in our 10th Grade American Literature classes, and as I approach a second go at this project with a new batch of students, I find myself drawn to this distinction made by Emerson in 1837.

I want my students to become thinkers, not book-worms.  I want students who not only study the views of those who have gone before them, but also students who put forth views of their own.  In this digital age, with all of these outlets for speech and expression, I want students who can think critically about information, issues, and problems. I then I want them to communicate, collaborate, and create. And I want them to learn all of this by making a Wikiseat.  

At the core of this project, is a lesson in the design thinking process.  Students learn to identify a problem or need (Where could I use a chair?), and then move into considerations of form (What should my chair look like?), and function (What should my chair do?).  They then sketch, prototype, build, test, and finally, produce their Wikiseat.  Students are encouraged to freely collaborate regarding materials, access to tools, and ideas concerning each other's work and progress.  Whether this be for a first grade classroom or a high school one, teaching students the iterative process is fundamental in helping students learn how to be thinkers and makers.  

As a Language Arts teacher, I found ways to both work in some great literature, as well as use that literature to inspire and spur on students as they began actually constructing their Wikiseats.  We sat with our catalysts in front of us and read Whitman, Thoreau, and mainly, Emerson.  I was able to gauge student reading comprehension, and they had a purpose for reading in that the actual content served the overall purpose of their work on the Wikiseats.    It isn't difficult to imagine tie-ins to other curricular areas.  A math teacher could use the triangle inherent in a three-legged Wikiseat as an opportunity to talk about angles and measurement.  A biology teacher could link the design thinking process to the scientific one.  And a history teacher could find a way to take form and function into thinking about government systems and historical innovation.  And maybe a few groups of teachers could try all of the above with an elementary school classroom.  

And as students begin to share their work with other classrooms, the Wikiseats will begin to tell a new story about what our students are capable of, of what we should actually be measuring, and what could change when given the right catalyst.