Tuesday, November 13, 2012

5,000 Students Can't Be Wrong: 6 Reasons Why You Should Support the Wikiseat Project

The idea is simple.  We want students to build chairs.  Lots of them. 
Why chairs?  Because chairs solve problems.
Solving problems is useful. 
So is learning how to solve them.

The Wikiseat Project started with 85 kids.  Now we have over 5,300 students on three continents signed up and waiting to build chairs, share the journey, and create a vast community of people doing what we think people do best.  People make stuff.  From little kids with blocks to the adults who produce all the things we come in contact with a million times a day, the process of design is constant and has been from our early beginnings.  We identify problems, create solutions, and share our work when we're done.  This is the very definition of progress, and we've built a 100% grass-roots effort to bring the experience of design to over 100 classrooms around the world in 2013.

 So what do we need from you?  Honestly?  We need $85,000 dollars to fund 5,300+ catalysts, pieces of angle-iron that serve as the basis for these three-legged seats, as well as well as the catalysts that will be given away as part of our reward system on the Indiegogo campaign we have set up.  Why should you do this?  Here are six reasons why you should support these students:

1. Transcurricularness

Real learning doesn't fit into nifty categories.  It's messy, problematic, and has an unpredictable outcome.  While I was able to align the project with my 10th grade English Language Arts content standards, and I do feel like this can also be done in other content areas pretty easily, this is a project that is about learning writ large, not confined by "subjects" and "classes". The design process, in which one mentally moves from identifying a problem, analyzing that problem, creating possible solutions, drafting, and finally production, is a process that is clearly necessary for today's world.  A close look at the 100+ innovative educators who have signed on to lead students through the Wikiseat process clearly shows that building chairs in school applies in a wide variety of curricular areas. 

2.  It Begins and Ends With The Audience.

Like all good design, the Wikiseat Project always has you, the audience, in mind.  Not only will students identify a place in their life where they could use a new seat and actually bring it to fruition, they will also be engaging with a whole wider community of peers, participants, and supporters.  The first group of 85 students were able to get their work displayed in a great local art gallery, complete with an opening night meet and greet session.  As an educator, I can't stress enough how proud I was as my students engaged a live audience gathered solely to hear kids share what they were learning in school.  What will the other 5200 students come up with this year?  Where will they share their work?  What size audience could that many kids reach?  Help us find out.

3.  It's the Future and You Want Futuristic Schools

Seriously.  Think about over 5,000 kids sharing the entire Wikiseat process together online.  Kindergarten classes in Newfoundland skyping with Master's Degree candidates in Australia.  Massive galleries of still photos, updated constantly, and providing a sense of community to both student participants and online supporters.  It's time we start to unleash our student's natural capacity to work and share collaboratively.  The days of having all school work handed to an audience of one are over.  Sharing is what happens when scarcity ends, and now that every kid has access to everything that everyone has ever learned via the internet, the kind of scarcity that has been the model in education for 100 years is done.  We don't have jetpacks like we though we would, but the future we wound up with is totally new and it's a super-exciting time to be in education.  

4.  We Need To Go Back.

All classes should be soulcraft, not just shop class.  And it's too bad about shop classes here in the US, they've been eliminated at the time when we could really use them the most.  This project is about a return to making things.  It's a reaction against throw-away culture.  It's about craft, and learning from mistakes, and physicality.  While the experience will be shared in a very modern way online, the actual construction process is entirely lo-tech. As much as we want to turn everything into a shared experience, we should pause and make sure that we also see value in the simple conflict between a human idea and a physical object.  Handing a kid a hunk of welded angle-iron is a very visceral thing.  It has weight, it's a bit greasy, and it makes an awesome thud as it plops down on a desk in front of a befuddled kid wondering how they are going to turn that into a chair.  Kids love the challenge of making things, and they also love to use the things they make.  I started this whole project because I realized that somewhere along the line I had given up on that love of making things I had as a kid.  I encourage you adults to contribute enough to get a catalyst for a Wikiseat shipped your way because I think there are plenty of people like me out there who'd love to feel that challenge of making something again.

5.  Kids Who Understand Questions Find Answers Better.

My kids have to take the same standardized tests that your kids do.  I don't really think about those tests much, though.  I'm making a calculated move towards the fundamental  premise that engagement is the most necessary element of any learning experience, and a calculated move away from this notion that content acquisition is the most significant goal of education.  By teaching my students how to think using a design framework, I am teaching them to not only find answers, but to appreciate questions as an opportunity to learn and grow.  My students approach those standardized tests with a desire to be measured, a desire to be put to the limit regardless how low or high the bar, and a desire to be done and get back to real learning as soon as that horrendous week is over.  They don't work for grades, they don't work for points.  They learn because they appreciate the beauty of moving from not-knowing to knowing, and they carry an appreciation of that beauty for the rest of their lives.  Oh, and they score quite well to boot.  

6. It's Just Cool.

This thing is as grass-roots as it gets.  Nic, Alaric and I had no idea that we'd put out a call to see if anyone was interested in building seats in school and get the response we got from students and educators all over the world wanting to come on board this crazy pirate ship we've got going.   This is something that wasn't possible a few short years ago, and now that we have the chance, we simply just have to follow through and get these hunks of metal in these kids' hands.  It's going to be incredible, and loud, and beautiful, and awesome.  

Whatever the reason, and I'd love to hear yours, please support kids who want to make things in school. 

- Sean Wheeler

Monday, November 12, 2012

I'd Advocate for More Soul.

My son doesn't like school anymore and it kills me.  Here's a kid alive with wonder, building entire worlds in his play time, always questioning the why's and what's of our daily lives, and he comes home every day with a different story that centers around "the loud kids" or "talking out of turn" or simply how boring it is to answer questions all day long in preparation for "the big test".  The disconnect between who my child is as a learner in the real-world, and who he is as a typical 5th grade student in America, is so vast that I wonder if school is doing him more harm than good.  When learning is a quantifiable end, and not a means to engage more deeply in one's curiosity or frustration, I worry that we're turning out a generation ill-equipped to solve real problems.

I have good reason to worry.  By the time kids like my son make it to high school they've learned the game, the rules, and how to best play at being a student.  This largely consists of not speaking in class, seeking minimum requirements, and avoiding any kind of frustration or annoyance.  Kids like my son work for points and grades.  Kids like my son turn into little test-takers and extra-point junkies.   They procrastinate, put their heads down in class, and get caught on their cell phones.  They hate school, and as well they should.

I became a teacher because I hated school.  It wasn't that my experience was particularly bad, it was just so boring.  After a few years of soul-searching in my twenties, I decided to re-enter the classroom and see if maybe I could go back and design the kind of learning space that I so sorely wish I would have had coming up.  It's been ten years, and I'm now more convinced than ever, we need to stop aiming at the test answers stored temporarily in our students' brains, and instead we should ignite the spark of curiosity and engagement that is innate in their souls.  

Souls aren't things you hear much about in the education debate, have you noticed that?  It's because the "stuff" of the soul is too difficult to quantify on paper and doesn't fit into the curricular categories we came up with 100 years ago.  My son surely has a soul, and whatever it contains within in it, whatever passion, curiosity and engagement he was given at birth, it is systematically being stamped out of him every weekday from 8-3.  The authors of my son's sad education narrative aren't primarily his teachers or his school, but the people at the top of the decision tree (politicians, billionaires, and profiteers) who favor the science of easy data over the art of stirring souls.

This wasn't meant to be a lament.  It was supposed to be about why you should donate to our Indiegogo campaign for the Wikiseat Project.  But I feel a need to share what is at stake here.  My children are at stake, your children are at stake, and I have decided to be unafraid when it comes to advocating for an education that is engaging, inspiring, and that taps into the potential that our current model of education seems all-to-willing to ignore.

- Sean Wheeler

Poster Design by Ben Barry.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Teaching Design: Finding Problems

AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by zachtrek

by Sean Wheeler

Problems are great.  They put us in uncomfortable places in our heads and hearts.  They frustrate us and gnaw away at us.  And it's because of this quality of problems, that they put us in what feels like a negative space, that problems get a bad rap.  But if we want our students to be ingenius, to be engaged, to be creative, we need to embrace the idea that the tension created by a problem fosters the kinds of growth we really need our kids to experience in our classrooms.

The problems we need, need to be different from the problems we're used to.  I think we've gotten used to pseudo-problems, problems that lack a real-context, and most especially, come ready-served without any of the aforementioned frustration.When my students used to write essays on Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" as applied to early Native-American oral tales, they weren't solving any mysteries, they were tellling me back everything I'd already taught them, but in a nifty MLA format.  However, when I asked a group of students a few years ago to go out and identify an environmental problem in our city and give a presentation to our class that persuaded me to care about the problem, they were using all kinds of observation and analysis skills that are sorely lacking from the pseudo-problem posed by my old Campbell/Native-American  essay.  After teaching my students persuassive rhetoric, they were able to use it to persuade not only me, but members of our local community, that these issues are important to my students.  The whole key to our success on that project was that I didn't walk into class on the first day and lay out "the problem" for them.   Instead, I asked them to find those places in their walks around town that frustrated them, that bothered them, and then I asked them to share these frustrations and work on alleviating them through invention, creativity, collaboration, and tenacity.

Last year, at the start of the Wikiseat project, I asked my 85 students to think about where they needed a seat in their life.  It sounds like an odd request for a homework assignment, but I asked students to think about moments of frustration in their daily routine that might be eased by having a chair to sit in.  One student told me that her little sister liked to hang out on her bed during homework.  The little sister was pretty squirmy, and it might be useful for the little sister to have a chair of her own.  That way she could still hang out, but wasn't squirming too much on the bed.  Another student told me that his mom worked two jobs, and in between jobs she'd sit on the back steps to put on her 2nd shift shoes.  He thought it would be nice for her to have a stool to sit on, so she wouldn't have to sit on the dirty steps and ruin her work uniform.  Other kids wanted a suped-up video game chair.  Another only cared that her chair matched her walls, because her current chair certainly didn't, and the clashing of colors was too much to bear.  The significant part of this whole process was that the students were able to identify a problem, and with that problem in their craw, they were able to start envisioning solutions.  I suddenly had students who were driven in ways that I'd never seen before.  By giving them the opportunity to work on the problems they saw around them, even something as trivial as building a seat for someone to sit on at home, they became engaged in finding solutions because the results actually mattered.

I'm really hoping to shape students who welcome problems with enthusiasm.  That's got to be as good as any content we'd serve up otherwise, right?  Teaching them how to think, using real problems as the means, seems significantly more important than teaching them what to think.  And when it comes to the answer-based tests that dominate our current education landscape, I want kids who love questions because they are the ones that want to give the answers.