When my kids were somewhere around seven and eleven years old, they wanted a go-kart. A few kids in the neighborhood had them and so my children wanted one. I found a used go-kart, bought a new engine for it, fixed up the seat, added new tires, and before long we were riding up and down our dead-end road.
When I think back on this experience, I am sure I was reliving my own childhood dreams and frustrations. When I was eleven, I also wanted a go-kart. In my case I was more enamored with the soapbox derby karts I had seen through scouting. However, I knew there was no way my dad was going to buy one or even build one. So I made my own. I scrounged wheels from old lawnmowers. I picked up wood scraps off local construction trash piles. I borrowed my dad's tools. I learned a lot of physics building those childhood karts. For example, I learned that a nail was great for connecting wood to wood. I also learned that that same nail would not sustain the wear and tear of being used to hold a wheel on. In fact, nailing four wheels to a 2x4 frame and thinking they would still be there if/when you reached the bottom of a hill proved to be pure folly. I also learned that nailing a crude stick to the side of your kart to create a handbrake was more folly. I worked on these problems. In looking at pictures of go-karts, I saw they often used an axle to hold the wheels. So I sought out steel rods to hold my wheels. Unable to solve my brake design, I at least recognized the need to have room to coast to a stop.
Building go-karts was only one aspect of the "maker" nature of my childhood. Modeling was a huge aspect of my play. With money from a paper route, I bought and built many plastic models. I asked for model trains and racecar sets for Christmas and birthdays. I designed elaborate layouts, solved electrical problems, and built homemade scenery. Later I moved to model airplanes made from balsa wood that were powered by a small engine and flew in circles with control lines. I learned about fuel systems, carburetors, and different types of glue. I learned about lift and drag. I would often start with a ready-to-build kit, but soon I turned to designing my own planes. Some flew. Some just crashed. In junior high "shop" class, I learned about leatherwork, basic drafting, foundry, and woodwork ... by making things. I took architecture in high school. I was embedded into a basic drafting class where I spent the entire year doing an independent study of architecture. I learned as I designed and drafted a house. As a developing musician, I maintained, repaired, and even built my own instruments. I often made things out of necessity because there was no money to buy something new. I built speakers, repaired radios, and resurrected broken guitars. Each project delivered its own new learning about physics, mechanics, electronics, woodworking, etc.
As I grew older my projects grew more mature, as did my understanding of tools and physics. By the time I graduated high school, I could maintain and repair the family car. As a young man of 30, I designed and built my own workshop from scratch.
Phil Schlechty writes that learning begins with a problem or product about which the student cares. I do not need any convincing of this. It is obvious to me. It is a self-evident truth I live and experience every day.
This learning by making things has always struggled in the factory model we call public education, where the emphasis is on memorization of facts taught via direct instruction and where students often learn concepts in the abstract. I wish I could say that my schooling was supportive of my making, but in fact, it wasn’t. I was left to tinker and form my own explanations when concepts revealed themselves through experience. If my science teacher had just pulled me aside and said, "Here are some formulas that might make your go-kart go faster," or explained lift and pitch and yawl to me, I would have jumped to learn these things. No one ever did. Even in my junior high shop classes, we only got to make things because “all boys need shop,” not to support any project I was involved with. In fairness, my architecture teacher did give me some print resources to help me out. He really had no other choice. I was the only architecture student in a class of beginning drafters and he had no time to give me any instruction. This turned out to be a blessing as I could work to my heart's content on my house design and consult content when I needed it.
On the bright side, there are growing movements that challenge the status quo. The Schlechty Center advocates the design of engaging work that begins with a Product Focus about which the student cares. The Schlechty Center is not alone in advocating this concept. Stanford University hosts an entire strand of learning for aspiring teachers based on concepts of design. International author and educator Yong Zhao has advanced a concept called Product-Oriented Learning in his book entitled World Class Learners. The concept of Project-Based Learning has taken a foothold in many districts across America, supported by heady entities like the George Lucas Foundation and Edutopia.
And then there is the so-called "maker movement." Yes, that is an official title of a real-life movement that is committed to the concept that kids learn by making things. These people are very serious about children learning via Product Focus. They have the support of universities like Stanford and MIT. They merge the world of creative making and technology through the Internet of Things. They advocate for the creation and use of fabrication labs [FAB Labs] where 3D printers, computer-programmed carving machines, and robotics tools are commonplace. They have their own magazine entitled Make:.
As I travel around the country with the Schlechty Center, in talking to students I find that this learning via Product Focus is still a powerful heuristic for them. In the past, I made go-karts, models, house plans, and musical creations. For twenty-first-century students, making still includes entities like the arts, woodworking, and tinkering with cars. But technology has driven a whole new world of making that includes video games, robotics, rocketry, and computer apps, to name a very few. 3D printing has taken modeling and prototyping to a whole new level.
Exciting possibilities! Keep your eyes on them. Want to know more? Read Engaging Students by Phil Schlechty, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, and World Class Learners by Yong Zhao.