Thursday, April 14, 2016

Failing with Little Bits

2nd graders teaching their class about Little Bits
Every week, I work with 2nd-grade girls who have shown a lot of interest in coding after the Hour of Code.  We usually work in ScratchJr, but our library recently got a Little Bits Korg set, and they wanted to try it out.  We opened up the kit, pulled out all the pieces and I just let the girls dive into figuring it out.  In the past, I would have read them the instructions and had them try out one of the challenges that are spelled out in the book basically squashing any inquiry-based learning and creativity. I wanted to see what they would do.  Would they hit a roadblock and give up?  Would they want me to tell them what to do?  I was soon surprised by their response and disappointed with mine.  

I found myself fiddling with the book, flipping through the pages fighting the urge to read every detail to them and then forcing them to try out one of the challenges.  At one point I even opened it up to a challenge and slide the book over to where they could see it just in case. They just glanced at it and ignored my gesture. The girls had no interest in it and instead followed their own flow of creativity.

The first thing they had to figure out was where to start. And they wasted no time.  Student 1 picked up the battery and then the cable and noticed that it looked like they went together, so she snapped it together.  Next, she looked at the other end of the cable and quickly scanned all the pieces to see where it might fit and soon found the power module, plugged it in, and instinctively turn on the switch.  “Oh look! This is how you turn it on!” she exclaimed.  They then started snapping pieces together without any purpose.  They quickly realized the piece with the box was the speaker because they saw the label, and then they began reading the labels on other pieces for clues.  They decided the speaker would go last and they snapped all the pieces together in a row, starting with the blue power piece and ending with the green speaker.  But nothing happened.  At this point, I was sitting on my hands in an effort to not reach out and take it over to show them the "right" way to do it, but my mouth was still free to move, so I interjected with questions. “Do any of the knobs on those pieces move?” “What happens when you turn them?”  Still nothing, so my big mouth was no help after all.  Instead, they continued with their flow of ideas. They destructed their long train of little bits and decided to start small with just a couple of pieces.  And viola! All of a sudden, we got sound.  And they spent the next 20 mins rearranging the order to get different sounds and learning how the different pieces make different sounds, and even more complex sounds when you add them together and change the tone, pitch, frequency, amplitude.  I asked more questions, this time trying to be more cognizant of my interference. I asked things such as “How was that sound different from the last sound?” and “What did you do to get that sound?”  “Can you make it start off softer and then get louder instead of starting loud then getting softer?”  

They would pick up pieces look at it and exclaim, “I wonder what this does?”  “I don’t know, but let’s put it here?”  They simply were not afraid to try and then fail.  In fact, they “failed” a lot during our 30-minute session. But they didn't care. They were completely engaged as their creativity and innovation just surged.  And I sat there amazed at how comfortable they were with their failures, and it reminded me of a TED Talk that I recently watched by Sir Ken Robinson titled Do Schools Kill Creativity? 

As we become adults, we become less comfortable with our creativity, and it’s because when we enter school, our creativity gets stifled.  It’s almost a bad thing to be creative because being creative means failing.  Little kids are not afraid to take chances and be wrong, but as we begin to grow up we’re taught over and over again that being wrong is a bad thing.  And making mistakes means you’re careless and unintelligent.  We see this over and over again in the classroom.  Then, when we graduate, we are told this again at our jobs.  Don’t make mistakes.  Mistakes will get you passed over for a promotion or worse fired.  But as Ken Robinson so perfectly put it, “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”.  Being wrong is the core of creativity and creativity is the core of innovation,  yet we are producing a society of people where who are not comfortable with being wrong.

Thankfully, some people in education are starting to see how damaging this has been for our culture.  We hear time and time again about how “Millennials can’t do anything”, that “they want everything handed to them”, “They don’t know how to think for themselves”. Who’s fault is that?  Our Education system. We taught them that.  They are the products of rigid, high-stakes standardized testing, where being wrong was extremely damaging.  And now desperate to move away from this,  some schools are seeing how important it is to provide opportunities for failure and innovation through student-centered, inquiry-based learning opportunities where they don’t have follow a rigid set of instructions to create something.  This is why a MakerSpace is so important.  

When our time was up, they begged me to allow them to take the little bits back to their class to show everyone else.  The other students sat around a table while the 2 demonstrated how it works.  Soon questions started to flow from the other students, “What does that do?” “What happens when you do this?”  They weren’t afraid to ask those questions. I was amazed at how comfortable they were to expose that they didn’t know much which led them to inquire and ask questions.  Adults almost never expose to other adults they haven’t got a clue about something, especially in the workplace for fear of being judged and stigmatized.  

This 30-minute experience with two 2nd-graders has proven how incredibly valuable learning through experimentation is. It should be our duty to graduate students who are self-learners, who can problem-solve, and who can innovate.  Because it is those skills which are at the core of being a productive and successful citizen, not memorizing facts.  Therefore, we must provide more opportunities to foster those skills, and a MakerSpace would provide us with a space for that type of learning.

The more I read about the arguments for a MakerSpace, the more I am convinced at how truly valuable this will be for our schools. Let's produce innovators instead of rote thinkers.