Saturday, September 12, 2015

Learning Is a Messy Process, Not a Tidy Product

I am learning a lot about learning, and about teaching, by spending time working with my dad in his carpentry barn.

  As the end of the school year neared, I proposed some summer projects to my dad: a "covered bridge" birdhouse and bird feeder. My dad said, "See if you can find a pattern/plan on the internet". Easily done, right? No. There were photos but no design instructions (well, there were some plans, if I wanted to pay $80). I printed a few of the photos and sat down with my dad.
   For my dad this was not a problem. In his mind's eye, he already had some ideas, and he tried to help me visualize the end product as well: "How big do you want it?" "Do you want ramps, like the entrance/exit to the bridge?" "Do you want to hang it from a hook or mount it on a pole?" "What color do you want?" The questions came as he sketched a simple pattern and guesstimated the sizes. To finish he sent me home with a list of supplies to bring next time (Home Depot alert: there's a rookie wandering the aisles!).

   Throughout the summer we worked in the barn and I practiced my skills with the table saw and circular saw, the router, drill, sander and other tools. As I learned skills, I learned a lesson in thinking.
   My dad saw this project as a challenge--who needs a pattern, anyway? Here's just a portion of his learning process:

  • measure and think;
  • measure and think;
  • if using others' ideas, analyze what they did and see how you want to change or adapt;
  • begin creating;
  • stop and think;
  • saw, glue, nail, screw;
  • measure;
  • stop and think;
  • "tweak"
  • saw, glue, nail, screw;
  • find weaknesses or obstacles;
  • (start over if your daughter screws up too badly)
  • stop and think;
  • look at product, hold it, turn it, think;
  • try a solution;
  • undo and try another solution;
  • cut, glue, nail, screw;
  • sand, varnish, torch (who knew you could burn wood to give it great color?!);
  • inspect;
  • celebrate!

If only you could have seen me as I came home carrying my finished products!

The bird feeder almost finished

One of our side projects was creating and laying a new floor in the barn.

Learning is often messy, taking unexpected twists, turns, detours, and even restarts. It also involves a fair amount of creativity, supported by confidence: if this doesn't work, I'll try something else! Learning also is about the process more than the final product--my greatest joy was in sharing this time with my dad and learning from him. The experience would have been worth it even if I had never completed my project!

I need to provide more opportunities for my students to learn in this manner. To accomplish this, I must develop in them confidence so that they will try, support so that they can fail and restart, curiosity and creativity so that they will view the learning process as more important than the final learning itself.

Can I deal with the chaos of a "messy" learning process? 

Can I teach my students to do the same? 

I am certainly going to try!