Learning by making
Back in the early 1990s, when I was involved in nurse education, I introduced a project where students were given an entire day to create a 5 minute video on a subject directly related to their course. In groups of threes and fours, the student nurses were sent out to conceive their video, script and storyboard it, decide on roles, procure their props, scout out shooting locations, record their video, and then edit it. Then, during the final hour of the day, each group introduced, showed and discussed their 5 minute video. Many of my colleagues were sceptical about the value of this kind of approach to learning. They argued that it was a waste of time when the nurses could be studying their text books, writing their essays, or practicing how to give injections into oranges. I countered that the students were, in fact, engaged in a very high level of cognitive activity where they were engaged in learning by making. It wasn't until a few years later when I discovered the work of Seymour Papert (now one of my Facebook friends!), that I was able to build a theoretical framework around the nurses video project. In his theory of constructionism, Papert argued that we build mental representations of what we learn, and that the situated nature of where we learn influences and strengthens that representation. In other words, we learn by doing and building within relevant environments, and that authentic tasks can be very powerful in support of that situated learning.
At the time I showed my colleagues that the nursing students were learning numerous skills that they would later be able to transfer across into their professional practice. To successfully complete their video project they needed to be able to solve problems, create content, construct artefacts, take decisions and make critical judgements, work together as a team, divide their labour and select appropriate tasks, manage their time, think creatively, negotiate difficult situations, consider ethical issues, work with finite resources, successfully bring a task to completion and reflect on their practice. How many of these skills could be modelled and situated within a classroom in such a short period of time? The very act of constructing something tangible allows students to test out hypotheses, learn from each other and solve problems as they progress. Abstract ideas and concepts become concrete and are situated in real life contexts. These are essential skills for 21st Century working. It is for these reasons that making things is a central part of all my courses, and whether it is a video, podcast, blog or any other digital artefact, students gain ownership, and invest their energies and their ingenuity into making and presenting it. In so doing they are constructing their own versions of knowledge and developing the skills they will later need outside in the world of work.
Photo by Ah Zut
Learning by making by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.