Technology and Design: Woodshop, Gardening, and Neuroplasticity

by Mr. Hugh Burke

In my last blog, I asked about what our kids spend time doing. The point is this: Digital communications are all around us, and the Net, television, and phones are ubiquitous. These ways of entertaining, communicating, and doing things all have their own advantages, but whatever we spend time doing is what we learn and get good at, and what we do not do is lost to us. Mostly, digitally based media do not require us to move much. Mostly, it is filled with distraction,  and the sort of information that can be measured in bits and bytes: largely unedited. We become, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “Distracted from distraction by distraction“.

We want our children to be very good at digital media, and at technological ability, as these offer many advantages. But we also want them to be good at, and learn, many things. Studies in neuroscience suggest that we benefit from doing many things, and the more we do – in a substantive way – the smarter we get. Since we want our kids to be smart, we offer a course called “Design and Technology”, in which kids face problems for which they must design a solution. Through a constant process of design, and reflection, and tryout, and redesign, they learn about how to think through a challenge. They may have to design a device to hurl an egg a given distance – without breaking it. Or they might design a small barge that can carry a tin can across a lake.

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Computers can help, of course, but computers cannot build their devices, or reflect on them, or work collaboratively with others. Computers become a tool like the others – a tool
that is used, but does not become the point of the exercise. Last year, a teacher and a group of students designed and built a workbench – to help them do the other things they needed. They could have watched a film about workbenches, but a film would not teach much.

Constant inquiry is what we do, and it is through inquiry with others that we best learn, especially when guided by a skilled teacher.

Our children can learn through computers, but real learning means actually doing something with other people. The current fad to depend on technology in order to streamline learning has little evidence to support it; some schools are engaged in an experiment without controls, and with only a fuzzy idea of where they are headed. At our school, we will engage properly with technology, with an understanding of how technology is best used: when, where, and under what circumstances, whether hammer or laptop.

To facilitate this well-rounded sort of education, we will be creating the means of applying technology: a woodshop, space and tools for gardening, materials for sewing, knitting and crocheting, science materials for fieldwork, and so on.  And we will be ensuring that these learning situations are enhanced by good teaching.

In my next blog, let us consider teaching for the real world, and how teachers prepare for the sort of meaningful teaching and learning that seems so important.