Wednesday, April 04, 2018

make it easy or challenging?

My middle school students will face a dilemma today. They asked for the opportunity to make bird houses. I acquired 5 1/2 in. wide western cedar for the project. A good source is to purchase dog-eared fence slats from Home Depot or Lowes. A single 6 ft. board is enough to build one house.

My students' dilemma is that I can make it difficult for them by offering the opportunity to practice their use of hand tools, or I can make it easy for them by making use of power tools and giving them little more actual experience than that of nailing boards together. The question, however, is not just a matter of easy or hard, or how much or how little they want to invest in the project, or how quickly they want to get done with it and move on to other things, but about how much they want to learn, and how much they want to express. Expression can come in the form of creativity, craftsmanship, or both.

So, this morning, before we begin work, we'll talk. The photo is from 2007.

Make, fix, create, and assist others in learning lifewise.


  1. Doug, I'm a middle school science teacher. jumping from wissenschaft and kennetics (?) with Friday being our day of exploring with our hands with our own projects. Teams "investigative" "construction" "aquaponics" "garden/compost" "design" work on projects. All good, but feel nervous that I can not show that my students are learning - you know. Most must be self-critical nervousness, but think it is so much more important. I have this question, 135 kids I see each day - 50 min. 30 kids each class - I am overwhelmed with too many questions, too many students who need my help. I want to "teach" independent thought - want them to reach and make mistakes - but not working. How do you do it? How do you smile and just tell them to keep working/designing/attempting while at the same time fearing they are not learning fast enough (it is not such a weird feeling - i just feel like I don't have time to let it happen, feel like I have to MAKE it happen) Help? Ideas?

  2. Tony,

    Administrators rarely know that hands-on learning requires smaller class sizes to be most effective. So the question becomes how do you make the best of a difficult situation.

    I find the principles of Educational Sloyd to be helpful. Those are: Start with the interests of the child. Move from the easy to the more difficult, from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex, and from the concrete to the abstract.

    Kids these days have been sheltered from the kinds of things I did as a kid. While their fingers were sliding over glass, mine were tying knots, using scissors, sawing wood, building stuff with blocks and with clay, so I started with a base level of hand skill that some of your students will not have.

    The good thing is that kids who have had much time in school will be ready for the refreshment that the hands provide. So ask yourself these questions: What would be easy for my kids to do? The hard stuff can come later. What do my kids know? And What do my kids know how to do? Use those things as your platform from which to build, even if it requires you to start over with scissors and string. Ask yourself, how can I simplify this project? You know that most things are overly complex, and deserve simplification. The complexity can come later. And how can I build this lesson in the concrete so it serves as a launching point for the abstract? Have some examples ready to show in concrete form what you hope to accomplish.

    When in doubt, simplify. That is my favorite rule in woodworking. If your projects are overly complex, that will add additional complication to lessons delivered under less than ideal circumstances.

    So, how to measure results? That’s a hard one. I watch first for engagement. Are they engaged in the lesson, and if not, I ask why… It may be that I’ve forgotten to take the principles above into consideration. I figure that if they are engaged, then they are learning, as learning is one of the most natural of all human functions.

    If you are a scientist, act like one and explain what a scientist does, and accept the fact that some lessons don’t work out as planned, just as life almost never does. Be sincere, be caring, for the student, their successes and failures as well as your own. Those qualities of character that you no doubt model are possibly the most important lessons your students will learn from their time in your class. Be sure to ask your students what they have learned. Have them write it down so that you will remember only the best when you have rough days.

    The lessons of Wissenshaft and the lessons of Kentniss are not measured in the same way or learned in the same way, but they do reinforce each other. Research has shown that lessons in science that have a hands-on component are remembered longer to greater lasting effect. Standardized test scores are raised more by the depth of a child’s learning than by its breadth.

    I hope this helps.


    1. Doug,
      Thank you. I am working through ideas this morning and brought up your blog which is very helpful. Your insights into simplification remind me that my kids are engaged mostly when they are feeling responsible for their learning - when they are making things happen and creating connections. I also think of how late it is in the year and how I wish I would have been doing this work (my design Fridays) from the beginning. Next year. Thank you, will keep reading and hope to keep in contact.

  3. Tony, teaching is an art, not a science. Box making is an example. You make your first box, have learned a bit and try to do better on your second box. After a while you've gotten quite good. Your design Fridays are ground breaking and will have impact even if they are not yet the level of success you have hoped for.

  4. Also, ask your students what they think of the exercise. You might hear some good things.

    1. Doug, I have been thinking of the "easy to hard", this is a wonderful place to start with what I am doing. I am working through an aquaponics experiment with the kids and know as much as they do, actually have a team of kids that know more. What I am seeing is growth that is very difficult to measure - it is the confidence on their faces. These kids are really excited about what they are doing and they are learning how to work through problems that typically they wait for an answer for. It is good for these kids that they work for their learning, it means more to them when THEY find answers.
      I will continue to work from the concrete to abstract model. Great stuff!

    2. A while back the National Endowment for the Arts was looking for a new metric for assessment of educational success and what they came up with was observable joy. There are several things you can observe that give an indication of joy. Level of engagement is one. What you describe as "confidence in their faces" could be noted as another. Expressed excitement could be another. It is also useful to ask them what they get from it. And questions like how do you feel about what you've done? What would you change about it if you were to start over? What did you learn from the project? Student reflection is a better measure of achievement than testing, and being asked for it tells them you are interested, not as a means of measuring them, but because you care about them and what they are getting out of it.