At MAK we believe that doing is a crucial component of true learning. Last month I touched on the action involved in our Christmas project and the audience afforded by our secondary research projects as part of doing at MAK. Another way we have being incorporating the doing component of learning this year is through our middle school Exploratory Courses.
MAK has had middle school Exploratory Courses for years. I remember having a soccer ‘course’ as a middle school teacher in my first years at the school, which mostly amounted to a few drills and burning off some pent up energy at the end of the day with some of my middle school students. While this certainly wasn’t all bad, last year our middle school team began shifting our Exploratory Courses away from a ‘do something fun’ approach to a purposeful focus on creativity.
Increasingly, creativity has been heralded in the last few years as an incredibly relevant and marketable skill for graduates to have. Traditionally, however, the idea of ‘play,’ which involves risk-taking and failure, is undervalued because students are afraid to get it wrong or create something that doesn’t quite work. Teachers are hesitant to allow for it in their classrooms because it takes time. But creation is invaluable. What better way is there to learn about cultivation than to try to grow a garden? What better way is there to learn about maps than to create one?
In light of this, we have redesigned our Exploratory Course purpose and even the way we assign grades to include the following elements: Creating, Risk-Taking, Collaboration, and Passion. Our middle school staff has responded with some exciting new courses that encourage these elements.
Board Game Design
In the past, our board game quarter course was always a popular choice for middle schoolers, but here we’ve enhanced this option by adding the element of creation. Why do board games work? What are the different types of games that generate different appeal? Students in this Exploratory Course did play board games for parts of the course, but it was for the purpose of making a game based on type they most enjoyed. The driving question, of course, was: can I make a game as fun as the one I just played?
The fine arts are and have always been about creation, risk, collaboration, and passion. Music, after all, is often the collective passion of a group, demonstrated to an audience, using sound. That’s inherently risky and collaborative! But this year we have been so excited to add theater to our MS fine arts program. In producing The Elevator Family, middle schoolers very publically performed in a way they hadn’t before. Mrs. McDillon and Ms. Zrinksy did a fantastic job of allowing middle schoolers the freedom to collaborate and to take ownership of their final performance.
Middle school eletronics students used their programming and wiring skills to build an aquaponics system for the school. This system maintained a school of fish that fertilized a garden of vegetable producing plants. Our students developed the pump system that took the water from the fish to the plants based on a series of sensors embedded in the garden. Students had to solve a number of problems including powering the electronics, water flow, and algae management in order to get the system working.
In our new Instructables course, students were given the opportunity to use tools, including some basic power tools, to build small projects, both independently and in groups. Final products included a floating basketball hoop, a soda can popcorn machine, string art, and bottle rockets.
Road biking has been a long-time favorite activity in Taiwan, and passion and risk-taking have always been part of that sport. However, creating and collaborating have not. In order to incorporate these elements, students in our biking course are asked to map their own routes and to figure out basic bike repair on their own. That takes collaboration and creativity! Just a couple weeks ago, our school staff received an email asking for broken or damaged bikes for the students in this course to work together to repair.
MAKe Electronics: Sound Meter
In the first quarter, students learned the basics of electronics to trigger lights through a series of relays in response to audio input. The students not only learned about the electronics and C+ programming to make the system work; they also designed and build the sound meter. There were many trials and errors, but they made a sound meter that has been used for a number of school events!
The Exploratory Courses listed above are far from the only options. Since the beginning of the year, our middle schoolers have also chosen from other options including art journaling, choir, art fundamentals, orchestra, World Scholar’s Cup, band, broadcasting, outdoor camping, tech fundamentals, cooking, painting, and blogging. In each of these options our teachers have been modeling for students that learning is about exploring and creating just as much as it is about hitting the books.