Sunday, November 02, 2008

When trash talks to you: The educational value of junk

When trash talks to you:
The educational value of junk

As a teacher, tinkerer and curious person, I have learned a lot from junk. The discarded things and devices I have learned from have helped me to teach and learn about electronics, product design, mechanical devices and many other interesting ideas. Like many people picking through the discards of others, I have a few rules on what I will and will not gather. It should be useful when I pick it up, or fairly easy to make useful. I don't like dirty, moldy or otherwise noxious stuff. Obviously, if you are in relationship with others, those people may or may not be thrilled about a taste for trash. Spouses and neighbors, even city officials or neighborhood associations may have some opinions on what you can and cannot accumulate. Somehow, everybody has to be kept happy.

The value of emotionally unattached junk.

If somebody tossed it, you can do whatever you want to it. If you brick a device that came out of the trash, nobody will cry that they paid $400 for it five years ago. This is the most powerful concept of learning from trash. When I started working on a dumpscore computer, trying to turn it into a server for my classroom website, I realized that I could screw it up royally and nobody would be mad at me. That realization released me to be able to experiment without the fear of failure. It was trash. If I ruined it, I could put it back in the computer pile at the dump and nobody would know the difference. I made the computer into a server and used it effectively for years until I found another way of hosting websites.

What can you learn?
Electronics, mechanisms, product design, how things work, the history of technology, innovation, environmentalism,

How can trash talk?
Use your senses:
eyes -
How does it look, does it have parts that are useful? What is written on it? What is the design of it?
ears - When you start it, use it, run it, does it make noises? Where are the noises from? When you pick it up, are there loose parts inside?
touch - What does it feel like, is it heavy, smooth? Can you feel the craftsmanship?
smell - Mostly, I give it a sniff test to see if it is musty. This is especially useful for books and computer that were used in basements.
taste - You probably shouldn't taste it, but some people don't have a problem with carefully found trash food.

How can you use the junk?

use it as it is
fix it
take it apart
make something new
take parts from one to fix another
take systems from one thing and add it to another thing

What do do when you are done with it
Take it back to where it came from.
Use it.
Give it away.
Sell it.
Take pictures of it.
Get rid of it.
Use it for parts.
Try to get rid of it.
Eventually, you probably ought to get rid of it.

Where can you get trashed?
The trash can in the house/school/office/etc.
Swap pile at the town dump
Loading dock
Somebody's junk heap/pile/room/etc. But always get permission first, because they may have something in mind.
Yard sale
Flea market

Photos to illustrate the ideas
Here are a few pictures that might go along with it, though I have many more. I have been doing this for years, and have a habit of often photographing as I go.

Here is a set of a project that I did a few years ago. I still have the radio, and may add to the project.
It was fun to take the old radio apart, see what all the components did, how they were connected to the circuits of the other components and imagine how they could be reorganized into another device. I attached them to a scrap piece of plywood, and intended to add an mp3 player input where the cassette head was, and an FM transmitter to the output so that it could be used to transmit the input to other radios in the house.
Resources to help with the ideas

Duxbury, the town I live in, has an active picking pile at the dump. It is actually called the Duxbury Mall. I have been using it as a project supply resource for years. Many of my students use the dump for a lot of the points of this outlined topic. I can tap into the experiences those people ranging from kids to college students to adults. Many of the people who graduate from my program at Duxbury High School learned a lot of what they know using these techniques and are now studying or working in the engineering field. I know many other people in other places who share this mindset.

If you have projects that came from trash, let me know. What did you learn from the trash? What did you make? Where did you get it? How do you dispose of the tailings of your trashy life?

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Cultivating the Joy of Learning

Lately I have been thinking, both on and off the clock, about the school year ahead. As we go into the last weekend before school starts, I am mostly wondering "How Can I Cultivate the Joy of Learning?" The information that has been delivered to me has mostly been facts about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and what the lawyers need me to know. Most of this information has been delivered lecture style. There was some discussion about 21st Century Skills, how to become critical thinkers and effective problem solvers. That was the good stuff, and unfortunately was over within ten minutes. Most of the rest of the days were filled with smart people at the front of the room telling the audience what they needed to know.

When I go to a conference about a topic I find fascinating and important, I sit up front. When I go to a concert, I see the audience crush the stage. When I go to a meeting, I see empty rows in front of the room. In a classroom with optional seating arrangements, I see students with interest sitting in the front and goof offs in the back. What is it that causes these differences in seating arrangements? What causes the conference members to crush the speaker while the meeting attendees and students crush the back wall?

While I don't know the answers to these questions, I am very interested in helping people learn. As a person who dislikes lecture format information delivery as both a student or teacher, it is always important to me that other styles of teaching and learning have a chance.

Back when I was being trained as a teacher, we talked about the Teacher/Learner. It was expected of us that we knew some things and that we were committed to finding out more. We were trained to believe that our students knew about things that we didn't. We were not encouraged to always be The Smart Person at the Front of The Room. It was our responsibility to uncover the possibilities within our students and ourselves. As our students learned, so did we. We were facilitators in the construction of knowledge. The class that just left the room would have a different personality and set of interests than the one that was about to come in. Last semester would be different than next semester.

As I have taught, I have learned a great deal about the subjects in my classes. Often I have had, like I will this year, five completely different subjects in a semester. Eight different subjects in one year may be the greatest number, but even when I have had multiple classes of the same subject, the unique qualities of each collection of students brings out differences in the same subject.

So the school year looms large at the other end of this weekend. How can a mere mortal teach five different subjects, have each course contain meaningful learning experiences and be fun for both students and teacher?

Each class is filled with a group of individuals who most likely chose to be enrolled in this elective class. Since they chose, and since the class is an elective,unlike their math, social studies or English class, the people should be able to buy into working with the subject. Every person has interests, and every person knows of some issues that need to be addressed in the community.

Here is one recipe for making this work:
Build a Community of Learners
People need to get to know each other. People need to treat each other respectfully. We need to be committed to learning and sharing our knowledge with each other.

Assess the topic
We need to look widely at the topic and examine its components. For example, what is robotics? What is computer programming? What is building and repairing computers? How can a computer be used effectively and creatively? Making a publicly visible statement of the topic as the group understands it and working from there will give a good base.

Determine our level of understanding
Each group will come into the subject with unique perspectives and experiences. It is worth determining some of what we know and don't know as we embark on the learning experience.

Identify our interests in the subject
Each person will come into a subject with personal desires and agendas. Having these known up front to the group as much as possible will help the individuals move forward in the group community. In this area, it is worth noting that some people do not feel confident in speaking up about this part of the topic, and sometimes find themselves working on a project that they did not really buy in to. When group decisions are made, it is important that people not look back in unproductive regret on the choices of the group.

Name the public/external expectations of us as a community of learners
The learning group may have been given an expectation in the form of course description, behavior code, state curriculum frameworks, or other Fact based expectations. Name them early, and the group needs to commit that they will be adhered to. What are the facts that we will be expected to demonstrate at the end of this experience?

Create the base of knowledge we will need

Every time the learning group meets, the members of the group needs to build its base of knowledge. Each person needs to commit to learning about the subject in meaningful ways. This may involve there being a teacher from the ranks of the group who delivers information, or it may involve people working collaboratively helping and assisting each other. It may also involve independent study and work on projects.

Collaborate to make an enduring public artifact to represent our learning and promote the work we have done together
During the larger time frame of the learning environment, the group and its individuals need to collaborate to create some thing or collection of things that will help demonstrate what was learned. The external community needs to see and recognize the learning and achievement that has occurred within the learning environment. It is important that the learner's peers see what they have done. The elders in their community need to see and recognize and support what they have done and created.

This enduring public artifact should be documented and archived in easily retrievable ways such as web pages, online photos and video. The learners should present their work publicly in front of the people of their community. After the presentation of their work, the evidence of the work should remain so that their learning can continue to affect the interest and inspire the learning of others.

So this could work. Personally, I have been involved in each part of this process before, but not so much as a comprehensive whole learning approach. It may be that by using this approach, it could be refined and repeated in other communities of learners.

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