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?

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