Making a difference: how to get and keep kids motivated with hands-on learning

Maker's Red Box 2020. 09. 09. 10:27

In most countries, classrooms have changed so little over the past century that stepping into one, a teacher from the 1900s wouldn’t spot much difference. A doctor, on the other hand, wouldn’t even recognize today’s operating theatres. Sadly, educational systems haven’t exactly kept pace with the times and it’s getting harder and harder to motivate kids to learn the skills and competencies they need to succeed in life. This puts teachers in a difficult and thankless position, too. Here’s why hands-on learning in makerspaces can help schools tackle these challenges.

 

Keeping children motivated in learning and growing has never been harder. It’s extremely difficult to get them interested in subjects that focus on a single academic discipline using old school teaching tools and methods. Expectations such as inspiring STEAM learning and developing 21st-century skills add a whole new dimension of difficulties for educators. Especially as most countries are stuck in 19th-century education systems.

Same old, same old

“The problem is that the current system of education was designed, conceived and structured for a different age. It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution,” Ken Robinson pointed out in one of his talks. According to the renowned educational advisor, who passed away just recently, it was then that today’s education systems took shape, sorted into age groups and subjects and between school bells.

The end result wasn’t much different from a manufacturing plant, expecting students to follow the same path and end up with the same solution.

The main principles of how we educate our youth have not changed ever since. Meaning that those who don’t fit the mould quickly start lagging behind. Then again, even high-flyers aren’t guaranteed to come out of school prepared for the job market. By the time kids finish school, Robinson says, their ability of divergent thinking, an essential element of creativity, disappears entirely. Meanwhile, it’s left to the teachers to help kids get through this rigid system and figure out how to keep them focused on topics that aren’t nearly as interesting as their – increasingly digital – environment.

Motivation through challenges

In developing Maker’s Red Box, we’ve seen how much easier it is to keep students’ attention when they feel challenged instead of just being taught. This way, teachers can spend less time and energy disciplining children as they’re more motivated than those exposed to linear, frontal teaching. Students respond even better if problems are embedded in an exciting story.

 

Open-ended tasks stimulate students' curiosity

If their task is not simply to build a tool for measuring water contamination but to do so as part of a high-risk Mars expedition with the mission of assessing the aftermath of a devastating storm, motivation will most certainly ensue. Especially if the whole class’s survival depends on the results. Bringing the world of TV shows and video games to the classroom as well as topics that today’s kids are passionate about, e.g. sustainability and environmental protection, will only add to this commitment. Students are eager to participate in these classes, arrive on time and even spend breaks working on their projects. And learn much more than they would do in a traditional classroom setting, without even noticing it.

Raising independent, savvy children

In most countries, education still focuses on developing kids’ lexical knowledge. The problem is that what this teaches students is that there’s one solution to every problem and there’s only one way to find it. In fact, fewer than one in ten (!) kids can distinguish between fact and opinion, according to the latest PISA insights. This is the direct result of getting kids to memorize and accept pre-selected information in school without critically thinking about it. In an age when information was not readily available, this might have been useful.

But in today’s information-saturated world, kids must learn how to winnow and verify relevant information instead. If we teach them not to ask questions, we’re teaching them the wrong things.

We must find ways to stimulate students’ curiosity – and reduce their resistance to learning – by giving them open-ended tasks. An opportunity for physical creation can also strengthen their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Not to mention teamwork, communication and the global competence that will help our youth navigate an inclusive and sustainable world.

Teamwork, problem-solving and creativity are some of the skills needed when working a makerspace

The importance of STEAM in our post truth world

Our maker curriculums have been designed to help students develop and internalize a scientific approach and vision, as featured in OECD’s PISA programme for 2018, 2021 and 2024. Hands-on learning in makerspaces prepares students to tackle complex challenges, from preparation and research through planning to prototyping and testing. Adopting an engineering mindset and learning how to use maker technologies also encourages them to choose a career in STEAM fields. In the meantime, educators teach kids skills they can apply right away and that offer exciting prospects for the future so they won’t question their usefulness.

In our post truth world, where opinions are often louder than facts, the developers of Maker’s Red Box have set out to raise a generation who naturally look at problems through the lens of science and data and verify what they see. Who take a proactive attitude to challenges and are able to come up with solutions that hold water in practice. Our goal is not to turn each maker into an engineer or programmer. Although, getting them interested in these fields is at the core of our curriculums. What truly matters is to help kids develop future-proof skills and competencies that help them succeed in whatever profession they choose.

A taste for life-long learning

Skills that help kids learn other skills and acquire new knowledge are essential to avoid the Dunning–Kruger effect. That is, the cognitive bias in which incompetent people lack the skills to recognize their own incompetence. The concept is based on a 1999 paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, in which the two Cornell University psychologists proved that the less we know about a field, the more we overestimate our expertise in it, which in turn greatly reduces our willingness to learn.

That’s more than unfortunate in a world where the rapid evolution of technology renders our knowledge obsolete in a blink of an eye – and makes life-long learning a must for everyone. With maker pedagogy, students acquire the skills they need to solve the problems they’re presented with. Meaning that they are constantly encouraged to learn, then use their new-found knowledge in practice right away. This also significantly improves their ability to remember and recall the material, as per Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Discussing and building the city of the future

Teachers in a new (and better) role

In a truly 21st-century classroom, the teacher’s task is to offer guidance and mentoring only. Students develop the ability of self-instructed, life-long learning, including how to find, verify and apply relevant information. In working together as a team on various projects, kids become learners and teachers at the same time. This helps them build skills like focusing on gist and empathy, while also making it much easier to recall the course material later on. Armed with these competencies, students can face any challenge the ever-changing job market throws at them.

This setting forces schools to redefine the role of teachers, too. And turn it into a much more rewarding one. If teachers can find a way to drive kids’ motivation to learn, they won’t have to resort to strict discipline and grades to encourage learning. Instead, they can finally focus on what really matters: teaching and developing skills. To be part of the making process as a teacher can be a truly liberating experience.

Students instinctively learn to treat educators with respect and are no longer subjects of but rather partners in the learning process.

Failures become milestones instead of pitfalls on their journey. And teachers’ task will be to find out what kids have learned instead of what they haven’t. Just like Ken Robinson imagined.

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