It’s time we stopped wasting our most important asset, teachers

Maker's Red Box 2020. 11. 12. 10:29

“We should rethink how we use the classroom and how we could use it more efficiently,” says Ádám Horváth, who has been working in digital EdTech since 2002, supporting governments, companies and startups in driving digital adoption. Thanks to his three children, he’s also had ample opportunity to witness all the ways our classrooms need to change. Helping others grow is both his job and his passion. Four years ago, the European Union recognized him with a European Digital Skills Award for organizing robotics camps for disadvantaged children. In 2020, he joined our team as Maker’s Red Box’s head of strategy. We’ve sat down with him recently to talk about the greatest challenges in education today and the solutions on the horizon.

Ádám Horváth, head of strategy at Maker’s Red Box

What do today’s schools lack?

The answer to this question is very simple and extremely difficult at the same time. The education system as we know it is no longer the most effective way to prepare kids for life after school. The idea of an institution that has classrooms where people talk to kids of the same age about a given subject was developed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution. At the time, there wasn’t unlimited access to information, meaning that people had to find a way to take the information they might need with them. So the primary aim of the education system was to get children to memorize knowledge.

With today’s information overload, however, it’s impossible for schools to teach kids all the things they need to know. If schools continue to teach kids the right answers to questions, they’re setting them up for failure. Students might remember when the First Punic War took place, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever need this knowledge. At the same time, the skills they will most definitely need might not even be in the curriculum.

What solutions are there globally to combat this challenge?

Most importantly, competency-based learning is gaining momentum. In Estonia, textbooks are no longer used, because they’re considered to be at odds with the aims of education. The truths they offer are pre-selected, linear and absolute. Which is something no kid will ever encounter later in life. Once they start working, they will be expected to find the latest information to solve any problem that comes their way. This requires a whole other set of skills, such as critical thinking, teamwork, validation and abstraction. In other words, developing 21st-century skills is increasingly becoming the focus of education.

Competency-based learning with microcontrollers

Another key trend is differentiation and personalization. If you think about it, when you go to a shoe shop to buy shoes for your kids, there are loads of different options to choose from. Even though kids have pretty similar feet. But when it comes to their brains, whose functioning is far more complex, we’re still trying to train them exactly the same way. With limited success, obviously. When kids learn to write in first and second grade, a 1-2-month delay in development can have a huge impact on their progress. This is why differentiation is crucial. Formative assessment, when kids’ progress is measured based on what knowledge they have successfully acquired instead of grades, is an integral part of this. In other words, recognizing what they have accomplished instead of punishing them for what they haven’t.

There are more and more digital evaluation systems available to facilitate this. They allow kids to self-assess what areas they need to develop, even several times a week. Students, teachers and parents are all provided with adaptive feedback, and if someone excels at something and has achieved the required level of knowledge, the system keeps them challenged. Setting students on the right path and helping them along the way with feedback and advice are extremely important in transforming the learning process.

How does Maker’s Red Box fit into all this?

Perfectly, because it’s all about making kids invested in learning and teaches them how to gain knowledge on their own or in teams, using the power of storytelling. Students have an opportunity to become part of a story in a way that suits their individual interests. It doesn’t result in average students feeling satisfied, while leaving above-average ones bored and making below-average ones feel inadequate. In this setup, each kid receives just the right amount of motivation to get to their next level.

Adam Horvath speaking at an event for EU CodeWeek

When you ask any of them after a session what they’ve learned, they always say: “Nothing. We’ve played the entire time.” But if you ask them whether they’ve measured angles, calculated percentages or learned something new about the Phoenicians, the answer will be a resounding yes. It’s quite incredible how much knowledge can be shared in a single Maker’s Red Box session.

Not to mention that each box focuses on developing 21st-century skills. In fact, acquiring these skills is essential to making progress from one session to the next. They can easily be integrated into traditional classroom settings, too, where improving these skills is rarely an option.

Why is hands-on learning key to the learning process?

First, it keeps children engaged. Second, it helps improve vital fine motor skills. And it’s fun! There’s actually a neurobiological reason why hands-on activities have become part of our curriculums. Our brains are wired to memorize not only mental processes but also physical ones. Remembering and processing information is strongly connected to movement.

When children are sitting in one place, their brains don’t receive any support they can clutch onto when storing information. But whenever they take an object into their hands, hear a sound, smell something, see lights or touch a surface, these all serve as tiny hooks that help them attach information to multiple parts of their brains. This makes recalling information easier, too. Another reason is that using your hands, and using tools, to create things develops basic competencies that are very useful in their own right, both in the job market and in our daily lives.

Hands-on-learning with the Maker's Red Box

Schools and teachers are under more pressure than ever. Are they open to embracing change? What could make the transition easier for them?

The education system, schools and teachers are open to change. They know very well that students need a new type of education that better aligns with today’s world, which they can actually use. So I don’t see any hurdles in this regard. The problem is they don’t know how to make this happen. It’s not something they have been taught to do. Essentially, the pedagogical training they receive prepares them for frontal education.

However, there has been an increasing demand for a different type of training. Upskilling teachers must become a key part of this shift in all parts of the world.

Integrating maker education into existing curriculums is a lot of work, but it’s doable. Maker’s Red Boxes make this much easier, as they have a very strong teacher training component. It’s so much more than just learning material. Teachers receive step-by-step guidelines on how to conduct each session. Any teacher with an open mind can master Maker’s Red Box activities on their own with a little preparation. And if they need more pointers, they can always turn to our growing Maker’s Red Box community.

What about decision-makers in the education space? When will these new solutions become widely available?

In some countries, maker pedagogy has already become an integral part of basic education, along with teaching subjects in blocks and project-based learning. Not as an exception but the rule. Of course, most countries are still in the phase of piloting this methodology. In these places we must drive adoption across the local education system.

Upskilling teachers at a new school makerspace

I’ve just had a discussion with Mart Laanpere, a leading advocate of digital education in Estonia. He told me about a comprehensive programme rolled out by the government to foster constructivist pedagogy in local schools. This is a brand new, 3-4-year-old programme. The key decisions have already been made, and schools have been provided with the necessary resources. Having fab labs and 3D printers in every school is the norm there. The same goes for the Finnish school system. In Western and Northern Europe, designing and 3D printing in the classroom are quite common, too.

Do you think that the pandemic will accelerate this trend?

Absolutely. According to Laanpere, the coronavirus crisis has not served as a catalyst for digital education but rather has brought its challenges to the surface. For example, that in most cases digital education only means moving traditional classroom activities into the digital space. What we need to do, however, is to make the learning process truly virtual. This means making the virtual space the primary place of learning and using the classroom as one of the platforms for this.

We should rethink how we use the classroom and how we could use it more efficiently. Classroom activities should include all instances where students and teachers interact and exclude one-way information exchange, assessment and practice components, which are some of the most time-consuming parts of the learning process. Making students sit next to each other in a room with a teacher watching them write is not the most efficient way to go about this. And it’s certainly not the best way to use our most valuable asset, teachers.

In traditional education settings, teachers are expected to focus on the entire class all at once, and there are always students who lose interest while others fall behind. It’s time to restructure the learning process and repurpose these waiting times.

In order to do that, we need to make sure that kids are constantly engaged in tasks that involve independent work, including practice, knowledge acquisition and collaboration. If they need help, teachers are available and provide undivided support. This is the most efficient way of education management today. Until artificial intelligence comes and rewrites the rules yet again.

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