October 25, 2012

Break something to make something

Filed under: creativity,edtech,gifted,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 10:51 am

What can I do to beat this, break this, or make people laugh?

When I taught gifted kids, their first approach when faced with a new technology tool, game, or toy was to beat it, break it, or make people laugh. I saw this reaction back in the day of early computer games we loaded from a 5 1/4 inch floppy disks. In the pre-PC days, my students — gifted or not –had the same reaction when faced with a special effects generator in the school’s black and white TV studio. (OK, now you can guess my age.) They wanted to make special effects that cut off heads or caused the TV monitors to go crazy.

Kids, especially middle school kids and older, will want to break, outsmart, or use any tech tool to make their friends laugh. We are missing a bet by not using this impulse to help them learn. There is a misconception, well debunked by Bill Ferriter, that technology itself is motivating. Ferriter is right. It isn’t motivating to ask kids to do what a tool is intended to do. It is motivating for kids to show their prowess in defeating it or molding it to their own purposes, preferably for an audience. The same social impulse makes them want to share on Facebook or YouTube. There may be some gender differences, but the stereotypes say what the boys break the girls will secretly redirect to their own purposes — giggling.

The makers movement challenges kids to MAKE things to fit a challenge. The gamification movement invites kids to create games to construct learning. I think we miss a bet by not asking kids to break things to meet a challenge. How can you use a tool of your choice to do something new and productive that it was NOT intended to do? What tool can you break to solve this unrelated problem? Give students the web full of  “tools,” and they will want to combine them or use them every way except as intended, especially middle and high schoolers. So let them.

Instead of  assigning kids tech tools to make a project using a specific tool, maybe we should simply allow them to break or “redirect” tools at will. The final rubric should certainly include curriculum accountability:  the result must show what they know about the prescribed curriculum. In the interest of teaching life skills and preserving our own jobs, we must include a requirement that the products have no more than a PG-13 rating (at least not in the version they submit for a grade). Share the rubric and any relevant acceptable use policy, but let students do it any way they want. Humor, even deviousness, can be a far greater motivator.  The teacher pleasers will ask for tools to be assigned, and that’s fine. The most able, most motivated,  and most creative will break something to make something. Isn’t that the innovation we want to build in our students?  The examples of “broken” or redirected  tools can serve to lure the timid into trying something a bit more adventurous themselves the next time.

One practical concern of this idea is that kids will take a long time to figure out the gimmicks and potential humor of the tools they choose. Let them do this on their own time. Schools have no walls, right?

Many years ago, I learned that comedy is far more difficult to write than drama. Parody, satire, and humor challenge the greatest minds. (I know how long it took to write a barely-adequate spoof of  “The Raven” last week!) If we can motivate kids to go above and beyond in their learning by following their impulse to break, trick, or make others laugh, we  have gone above and beyond our own curriculum. We have “mashed up” the student behaviors we can barely control with the curriculum we want students to master.  We have encouraged innovation. And we might even get a chance to laugh together.

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