February 12, 2018

Making Is a Stance Toward Learning: Combining Learner Agency with Tinkering, Debugging and Project-based Learning

Category: Educational Practice
Many arts and crafts tables in a classroom

The tyranny of correct answers masks a vital and essential element of learning — the practice of debugging. When you make something, however, especially something that involves code and/or electronic or mechanical components, it is to be expected that your project will not work the first time you turn it on. Coding and making involves a great deal of systematic problem-solving to find and eliminate bugs.

There’s nothing like the feeling when the last bug has been squashed and your creation beeps or moves or lights up. This kind of learning isn’t confined to tangible DIY projects. Confining learning to memorizing the right answers or grooving in a particular procedure deprives learners of the kind of systematic tinkering, debugging and discovery that can bring joy and insight to any subject. And, an important meta-lesson can be learned: errors and bugs are clues, not signs of failure; perseverance can turn wrong guesses into right answers.

I started making things out of wood and electronics in my 60s, so tinkering and debugging of the kind that makers and programmers do every day was new to me. It wasn’t hard to understand beginner’s mind. As I wrote of Sylvia Libow Martinez, who contributed the phrase “making is a stance toward learning,” “messing, tinkering, building projects that actually interest learners is about developing skills of autonomous learning, cultivating an appreciation for and fluency in using learning communities and experienced guides, and practice at thinking big.”

It’s one thing to learn necessary tools such as multiplication and division methods or composing an essay, but a new level of enthusiasm is kindled when a learner envisions, plans, builds, debugs and operates a tangible project of their own devising. Such projects and processes put the learner at the center of the learning process. Teachers can guide, encourage, help explore, scaffold, show what is possible, but it is the learner who has to figure out how to make their project work.

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Banner image credit: Laurie Sullivan